Federal Data Show Gains on Language
But Most States Miss English-Learner Goals
By Mary Ann Zehr
Published: March 23, 2005
The U.S. Department of Education’s first-ever evaluation of how states are meeting requirements for English-language learners under the federal No Child Left Behind Act can be looked at two ways.
One view of the report, which was released to Congress last week, is that states have made great strides in laying the groundwork for schools to teach English-language learners. That’s the view of Kathleen Leos, the associate deputy secretary and senior policy adviser for the Education Department’s office of English-language acquisition, a researcher for the evaluation.
“Given where the states started, there’s been significant progress made in all states at varying levels,” she said in an interview. The evaluation shows all 50 states plus the District of Columbia have developed standards for English proficiency and aligned them with their academic-content standards, she noted. Before the 3-year-old law was enacted, only seven states had such standards, and they were not connected to academic content.
“It’s absolutely going to impact instruction in the classroom,” Ms. Leos said.
For More Info
"Biennial Evaluation Report to Congress on the Implementation of the State Formula Grant Program" is available online from National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition.
But another interpretation of the findings in the 503-page evaluation, which covers the 2002-03 and 2003-04 school years, is that states have largely failed to meet the law’s requirements to ensure that English-language learners master academic content. Only two states—Alabama and Michigan—met “adequate yearly progress,” or AYP, goals last school year for such students in both reading and mathematics.
Moreover, not a single state both reported all the data required by the federal law and met all the mandated targets for English-language learners.
“This report certainly accentuates the positive, and to learn the bad news about how the No Child Left Behind Act is working out, you have to read the fine print of a 503-page report,” said James Crawford, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association for Bilingual Education, who was a reporter for Education Week in the 1980s.
The news, according to Mr. Crawford, “shows that this is a dysfunctional system of accountability. No one has sat down to do the math to see that it’s impossible for most schools with significant numbers of English-language learners to meet their AYP targets as the targets get more stringent. This subgroup by definition will never go very far in meeting the full-proficiency target.”
While states that didn’t make adequate yearly progress goals could lose federal funds, Ms. Leos said the federal government doesn’t plan to punish states for failing to meet requirements for English-language learners, because states have made so much progress in such a short period of time.
The report was released to Congress March 15.
“States should be commended for making significant progress in implementing these provisions in three short years,” said Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House education committee, in an e-mail. “However, there is still much work that must be done before we achieve our long-term goals of ensuring all students are proficient in reading and math.”
Two States Stand Out
Though the Education Department’s summary of the evaluation’s findings fails to point out that no state met all of its English-proficiency and academic goals for English-language learners, Ms. Leos acknowledged that conclusion in interviews last week.
In addition, the summary provides analysis only for how states met their goals for English proficiency, but not for how the states did at meeting goals for English-language learners in reading and math.
For instance, the summary says that “of the 42 states that provided target and performance data, 33 report meeting at least some of their [annual measurable achievement objective] targets regarding progress in English-language proficiency.” The department counts the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico as states.
As far as helping second-language learners gain fluency in English, the success rate for states’ achievement of their goals is even better, the department points out: Of the 45 states that provide one or more targets as well as performance data, 41 met some or all of their goals.
The Fine Print
But readers of the report will have to look beyond the summary and wade through more than 400 pages of data about individual states to draw conclusions about the states’ progress in meeting academic goals for English-language learners. The findings are much less impressive than states’ record on helping students learn English.
Buried in the data is the fact that only Alabama and Michigan met their AYP goals last school year for English-language learners’ test scores in bothreading and math. Alabama set a goal of having half its 11th graders who were tested in math reach the cutoff score for “proficient and advanced.” Michigan set the target of having 33 percent of its 11th graders land in the category of “proficient and advanced,” though each state has different tests.
Mississippi, Missouri, and Virginia met their goals for math, but not for reading. None of the other states met their projected targets for English-language learners in either subject. Altogether, 36 states reported the data fully for math, and the same number of states, though not the same exact group, did so for reading.
“Those who have studied second-language acquisition wouldn’t be surprised by those findings,” said Deborah J. Short, a language researcher at the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics. “It takes four, seven, or even nine years for some students to reach academic proficiency.”
Ms. Leos said the Education Department’s decision not to spell out whether states had met AYP goals for English-language learners wasn’t an “edict coming from a political standpoint.” Rather, she said, it was an “internal decision” grounded in a belief that it was hard to make comparisons between states.
“I don’t think you can make any conclusive statements about what achievement gap exists between limited-English-proficient children and native English-speakers,” Ms. Leos said.
Ms. Short countered that the department should have taken a stab at characterizing second-language learners’ academic results in reading and math. Annual testing of 3rd through 8th graders in those subjects is a key gauge of success under the federal law.
“They should have reported how students were doing on math and reading to the extent they could so we could understand the challenges these students face when asked to perform in a language they are not proficient in,” Ms. Short said.
At the same time, she cautioned against reading too much into whether states make their targets or not because each state sets targets differently.
California, for example, reached its goal for helping students attain fluency in English by bringing 38 percent of English-language learners to fluency last school year. Delaware, at the same time, met its goal by having just 5.6 percent of such students attain fluency.
States’ definitions for fluency in English also vary.
New Level of Data
Experts on second-language learners who had read the summary of the evaluation last week said the report reflects positive change for how schools and states view English-language learners.
“The approach in the program suggests that the states or the feds are recognizing that limited-English-proficient kids are here to stay, and they need a systematic approach,” said Charlene Rivera, the executive director of the Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, located at George Washington University.
“One of the main points of the report is to show Congress the data are being collected,” said Randy Capps, a senior research associate at the Washington-based Urban Institute, who is conducting a study about the impact of the federal education law on English-language learners. He said the federal government has never collected data on such students to the extent that it is now.
Most states had some gaps in the data that they were required to report to the Education Department.
New York, for example, did not provide information on whether it had made AYP for English- language learners in reading. Jonathan Burman, a spokesman for the state education department, said last week that New York was unable to provide the data because of difficulties in matching up test scores used previously with scores on a test introduced last school year.
Elsewhere, Irene Morena, Arizona’s deputy associate superintendent for English acquisition said in an e-mail message she couldn’t say why data about her state’s targets and student performance in English proficiency didn’t make it into the federal report. It was, she said, submitted to the federal department on time.
Ms. Rivera of the Center for Equity and Excellence in Education said the report was lacking in information that would help states improve instruction in academic content for English-language learners.
“The report doesn’t really discuss how instruction in reading and math and other content areas is being delivered,” she said. “That needs to be thought about more. Language is one thing, but you need to really focus on content.”
The report’s findings show that all states have English-only programs for children to learn the language, while 40 have at least some bilingual education to teach the language. Thirteen states provide assessments in students’ native languages.
An official at the Alabama Department of Education credits teacher training in strategies for working with English-language learners as helping her state meet its academic goals.
“The more we provide professional development, the better off we are,” said Dely Velez Roberts, the state agency’s specialist in English-language learners.
Vol. 24, Issue 28, Pages 1,25
The Center for Applied Linguistics offers research resources on student language acquisition and proficiency.
The Center for Equity and Excellence in Education has launched the Promoting Excellence Initiative, a "national effort to improve K-12 education for English language learners."