One of the most controversial aspects of NCLB is its performance requirements for subgroups within the general student population. Mr. Abedi and Mr. Dietel examine the implications of these requirements for English-language learners and offer recommendations to help states, districts, and schools facilitate the progress of these students.
THE NO CHILD Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 requires that all children, including English-language learners (ELLs), reach high standards by demonstrating proficiency in English language arts and mathematics by 2014. Schools and districts must help ELL students, among other subgroups, make continuous progress toward this goal, as measured by performance on state tests, or risk serious consequences.
Through these mandates, NCLB establishes high expectations for all students and seeks to reduce the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. These are worthy goals, which require extraordinary improvement in student learning. The challenges for English-language learners are especially difficult, involving both educational and technical issues, including:
* Historically low ELL performance and very slow improvement. State tests show that ELL students' academic performance is far below that of other students, oftentimes 20 to 30 percentage points lower, and usually shows little improvement across many years.
* Measurement accuracy. CRESST research shows that the language demands of tests negatively influence accurate measurement of ELL performance. For the ELL student, tests measure both achievement and language ability.
* Instability of the ELL student subgroup. The goal of redesignating high-performing ELL students as language-proficient students causes high achievers among ELL students to exit the subgroup. The consequence is downward pressure on ELL test scores, worsened by the addition of new ELL students, who are typically low achievers.
* Factors outside of a school's control. CRESST research shows substantial nonschool effects on student learning even within ELL subgroups. Schools are therefore unable to control all the factors related to student achievement.
We elaborate on these ELL issues below and offer some suggestions to help schools meet the NCLB goals. Our comments are based on a series of research reports by Jamal Abedi and others.
Low Performance and Slow Improvement
CRESST research, supported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and state test results, shows that English-language learners consistently perform lower than other students and frequently lower than many other subgroups. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) (a standards-based assessment chosen partly because it has collected six years of data) offers a good example. In 1998, the first year of MCAS, only 7% of ELL students in the Boston Public Schools and 8% of ELL students in Massachusetts overall reached the level of proficient or above in 10th-grade English language arts. This compares unfavorably with the statewide figure of 38% proficient or above for all students -- a gap of approximately 30 percentage points.
In the next few years, perhaps spurred by the adoption of the 10th- grade English language arts assessment as a graduation requirement,1 Massachusetts 10th-grade English language arts scores improved substantially, reaching 61% proficient or above statewide in 2003. However, by 2003, the gap between ELL students and Massachusetts students overall had increased to 49 percentage points: 61% for all students versus 12% for ELL students.
In Boston, the state's largest district, with approximately 10% ELL students, the gap grew as well, beginning at 11 percentage points in 1998 and increasing to 20 percentage points in 2003. Rapid progress by students overall, combined with policies that test ELL students who have lived in the United States for very short periods of time, both have contributed to a growing ELL achievement gap in many states and school districts. …