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ELLs in the House Education Committee Draft of Revised NCLB

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The House Education Committee has released a draft of a reauthorized No Child Left Behind Act that provides both added flexibility and a couple of new requirements concerning how schools educate and assess English-language learners. For an overview of the draft, read the article by my colleagues David J. Hoff and Alyson Klein.

Among the added flexibility is the opportunity for school districts to test ELLs in their native language for up to five years—up from three years in the current law—with the option of extending that testing for two additional years for children on a case-by-case basis.

The draft of the revised NCLB, released yesterday by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., also contains a provision that would let school districts use their state English-language-proficiency tests for determining adequate yearly progress in reading for ELLs with the lowest levels of English-language proficiency for a period of two years after enactment of the reauthorization.

But the draft of the federal education law also includes new requirements. One of them is that states with more than 10 percent of ELLs who share the same language will be required to create valid and reliable native-language assessments for that language group. (Last time I checked, in January 2006, only ten states were using such assessments.)

Also, states will have to show in their plans submitted to the U.S. Department of Education how they will prepare teachers to use testing accommodations for ELLs appropriately.

What feedback do you have for the representatives in the U.S. Congress and their aides who created this draft? They welcome comments sent to ESEA.Comments@mail.house.gov (deadline is Sept. 5).

Also, let us know here on this blog what you think of the proposed provisions, so we can have a discussion about them.

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I'm still slogging through the 435-page draft of Title I -- a necessity, I'm afraid, because the summary isn't altogether accurate. There are provisions affecting ELLs throughout, but see especially pp. 67-87. Also note that a draft of Title III, which deals specifically with ELLs, has yet to be released.

To quote Samuel Johnson out of context, I'd say that this reauthorization proposal reflects the triumph of hope over experience. Over the past 5 years, experience has revealed fundamental flaws in No Child Left Behind. But instead of fundamentally rethinking the law, Reps. Miller and McKeon propose to add new layers of complexity, apparently hoping to vindicate their rash creation.

Especially where English language learners are concerned, I think the draft bill is unlikely to improve NCLB's garbage-in, garbage-out approach to accountability, which uses invalid, unreliable assessments for high-stakes purposes.

Here are just a few reasons:

1. The bill mandates valid and reliable assessments for ELLs, but so does current law. We know how that's worked out: the vast majority of content assessments now being administered to these kids are English-language tests that nobody even bothers to claim are valid or reliable. All that would change under the Miller-McKeon proposal is that states would face a two-year deadline to develop valid/reliable tests or face financial penalties.

The assumption seems to be that states have simply dragged their feet in meeting their obligations. But would it even be possible to develop English-language academic assessments that are valid for ELLs at many different levels of English proficiency? That's never been achieved, and I suspect that trying to do so is a fool's errand.

2. How about accommodations for ELLs taking tests designed for proficient English speakers? The draft bill would require states to use only those with "research-based" validity and reliability. None currently exist, and research in this area remains quite limited. Accommodations do not offer an easy solution, at least in the near term.

3. The bill would allow the use of portfolios and other alternate assessments -- potentially an improvement. But again, these types of tests are rarely available and would take time to develop. Meanwhile, the "inclusion" of ELLs, using inaccurate assessments for measuring "adequate yearly progress," would continue until most schools with an ELL subgroup would find themselves in "corrective action" status or worse.

4. The bill would allow states to use English language proficiency scores for beginning ELLs for up to 2 years, while valid/reliable assessments are supposedly being developed. It would allow them to exempt ELLs from language-arts assessments for their first 12 months in U.S. schools. And it would allow them to count the scores of former ELLs for AYP purposes for up to 3 years.

Yet all of these provisions are arbitrary, unscientific, and unlikely to do much to mitigate the unfairness of the current system. Nor do they address the well publicized abuses that NCLB has created: emphasizing test prep to the exclusion of real teaching, stressing basic skills over critical thinking, and narrowing the curriculum to the 2 high-stakes subjects.

5. As a way out of this mess, Miller and McKeon rely heavily on expanding the use of native-language assessments. But they don't seem to recognize that only about 15 percent of ELLs now receive native-language instruction in core subjects. For those who lack literacy in, say, Spanish, native-language tests are inappropriate.

6. Yet the draft bill requires states to develop native-language assessments for any language group that makes up at least 10 percent of the state's ELLs. This would be a huge change. It would probably have some positive effects (e.g., for kids now in bilingual classrooms), along with some very perverse consequences.

First, the good news. Ensuring that native-language assessments are universally available would relieve some of the pressure to push ELLs into English as rapidly as possible (which contradicts research evidence on best practices). It also might slow down the trend of dismantling bilingual programs because of anxiety about ELLs making AYP on English-language tests. Which would be good thing, in my view.

On the other hand, the mandate could impose a crushing burden on many states. Virtually all of them would have to develop native language assessments in Spanish (or, e.g., in Texas, redesign these tests to make them valid/reliable). Some would probably have to do so in Tagalog, Hmong, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Yup'ik, and possibly other Native American languages.

Developing such assessments would be quite expensive and time-consuming, especially in states with new or diverse immigrant populations. It would be a foolish diversion of resources away from what they most need: professional development and technical assistance to develop schools' capacity in serving ELLs. This is where the feds could play a major positive role -- if only Congress could get over its assessment obsession.

7. Finally, there's a loophole in this provision requiring that native-language assessments for ELLs be "consistent with state law." The perverse effect here might be that many states would choose to outlaw such assessments, denying them to ELLs for whom they would be meaningful and appropriate.

Looking at this draft -- a Rube Goldberg contraption if there ever was one -- I have to wonder whether Reps. Miller and McKeon heeded any expert advice on ELL needs whatsoever. Ignoring the views of most educators and researchers, while listening primarily to Washington "think tanks," proved disastrous in the first authorization of NCLB. Let's hope Congress can learn from its mistakes.

The big question is whether NCLB, especially its very heavy (some say onerous) accountability requirements, has been good for students. Right now there is not a lot of evidence overall, that is, at the national level, that it has been. You could even make the case that overall the effect has been negative, although proponents and defenders naturally cite examples to support their particular case. The same is true for ELLs. There's no evidence that I know of that it's been helpful. On the other hand, I know a lot of educators who think that the focus on ELLs has been positive, since schools and districts can no longer hide the poor achievement of these children behind decent overall achievement test scores. I've had people tell me that for the first time their school or district is actually paying attention to these kids' achievement. If this is true, then the proposed changes are probably a good thing since they expand flexibility with regard to assessing ELLs. There are some other good provisions, such as ensuring accessible curriculum. A lot depends on what states and districts do with these. But even the proposed changes still don't go nearly far enough in developing and building on children's first language skills.

Claude Goldenberg is correct. Some educators do report that NCLB has brought long-overdue attention to the needs of ELLs in their school districts. Indeed, I don't know of anyone who disputes that this has occurred. But I've noticed that administrators are far more likely to report that the attention has been beneficial. Rarely have I heard such sentiments expressed by a teacher.

The "attention" rationale seems to make more sense the farther you get from a classroom. From a remote vantage point, standardized test scores offer a convenient, economical snapshot for gauging student progress. Since ELL test scores are often quite low, albeit invalid and unreliable in most cases, they are frequently cited to strengthen the (entirely legitimate) case for allocating additional resources and expertise to ELL programs.

I suspect that, because ELL scores are so useful in this regard, it's easy for some people who are not in classrooms to ignore the downside of high-stakes testing. But teachers do not have that option. They can't avoid seeing the perverse, daily consequences for their kids and for their own effectiveness as educators -- effects that they are largely powerless to prevent. NCLB is perhaps the first top-down "reform" that teachers cannot evade by simply closing the classroom door.

A major problem in reauthorizing NCLB is that policymakers have remained largely oblivious to the student-level impact of their crudely conceived "accountability" system. One reason is that they rarely listen to the practitioners charged with making this law work. They would do well do heed teachers' views before more damage is done.

I'd refer them to a couple of excellent pieces of testimony.

1. Recently on the Education Policy blog, a classroom teacher explains how "the current emphasis on test prep makes fostering a love of learning nearly impossible" among her students.

2. Linda Perlstein, formerly of the Washington Post, has just published a compelling account of her year in a Maryland school, documenting the high cost of high-stakes testing for both students and staff. Her book, Tested: One School Struggles To Make The Grade, should not only be required reading for the authors of NCLB. They should also have to pass a test on it before voting on reauthorization.

Claude Goldenberg is correct. Some educators do report that NCLB has brought long-overdue attention to the needs of ELLs in their school districts. Indeed, I don't know of anyone who disputes that this has occurred. But I've noticed that administrators are far more likely to report that the attention has been beneficial. Rarely have I heard such sentiments expressed by a teacher.

The "attention" rationale seems to make more sense the farther you get from a classroom. From a remote vantage point, standardized test scores offer a convenient, economical snapshot for gauging student progress. Since ELL test scores are often quite low, albeit invalid and unreliable in most cases, they are frequently cited to strengthen the (entirely legitimate) case for allocating additional resources and expertise to ELL programs.

I suspect that, because ELL scores are so useful in this regard, it's easy for some people who are not in classrooms to ignore the downside of high-stakes testing. But teachers do not have that option. They can't avoid seeing the perverse, daily consequences for their kids and for their own effectiveness as educators -- effects that they are largely powerless to prevent. NCLB is perhaps the first top-down "reform" that teachers cannot evade by simply closing the classroom door.

A major problem in reauthorizing NCLB is that policymakers have remained largely oblivious to the student-level impact of their crudely conceived "accountability" system. One reason is that they rarely listen to the practitioners charged with making this law work. They would do well do heed teachers' views before more damage is done.

I'd refer them to a couple of excellent pieces of testimony.

1. Recently on the Education Policy blog, a classroom teacher explains how "the current emphasis on test prep makes fostering a love of learning nearly impossible" among her students.

2. Linda Perlstein, formerly of the Washington Post, has just published a compelling account of her year in a Maryland school, documenting the high cost of high-stakes testing for both students and staff. Her book, Tested: One School Struggles To Make The Grade, should not only be required reading for the authors of NCLB. They should also have to pass a test on it before voting on reauthorization.

Claude Goldenberg is correct. Some educators do report that NCLB has brought long-overdue attention to the needs of ELLs in their school districts. Indeed, I don't know of anyone who disputes that this has occurred. But I've noticed that administrators are far more likely to report that the attention has been beneficial. Rarely have I heard such sentiments expressed by a teacher.

The "attention" rationale seems to make more sense the farther you get from a classroom. From a remote vantage point, standardized test scores offer a convenient, economical snapshot for gauging student progress. Since ELL test scores are often quite low, albeit invalid and unreliable in most cases, they are frequently cited to strengthen the (entirely legitimate) case for allocating additional resources and expertise to ELL programs.

I suspect that, because ELL scores are so useful in this regard, it's easy for some people who are not in classrooms to ignore the downside of high-stakes testing. But teachers do not have that option. They can't avoid seeing the perverse, daily consequences for their kids and for their own effectiveness as educators -- effects that they are largely powerless to prevent. NCLB is perhaps the first top-down "reform" that teachers cannot evade by simply closing the classroom door.

A major problem in reauthorizing NCLB is that policymakers have remained largely oblivious to the student-level impact of their crudely conceived "accountability" system. One reason is that they rarely listen to the practitioners charged with making this law work. They would do well do heed teachers' views before more damage is done.

I'd refer them to a couple of excellent pieces of testimony.

1. Recently on the Education Policy blog, a classroom teacher explains how "the current emphasis on test prep makes fostering a love of learning nearly impossible" among her students.

2. Linda Perlstein, formerly of the Washington Post, has just published a compelling account of her year in a Maryland school, documenting the high cost of high-stakes testing for both students and staff. Her book, Tested: One School Struggles To Make the Grade, should not only be required reading for the authors of NCLB. They should also have to pass a test on it before voting on reauthorization.

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