While the No Child Left Behind Act has a detailed
formula for bringing students to proficiency on state
reading and mathematics tests by the 2013-14 school year,
it's much less precise on states' goals for
Under the law, states for the first time must set
"annual measurable achievement objectives"—or AMAOs—for
how English-language learners are progressing toward
learning English. States must also show that they are
meeting those goals.
The goals are required in Title III of the No Child
Left Behind law, the 2001 revision of the Elementary and
Secondary Education Act. Title III supports local programs
such as bilingual education or English-
as-a-second-language classes that are supposed to help
children with limited English proficiency reach the point
at which they can comfortably handle classroom work in
English. The federal government is expected to spend
between $665 million and $686 million on Title III in
States that fail to meet the new goals could eventually
lose some of their Title III funds.
U.S. Department of Education officials acknowledge that
some of the goals states have set are weak, but for the
time being, the officials say, they're not rejecting any
of the goals because of a lack of rigor.
"The No Child Left Behind Act is political hyperbole,"
said Christine H. Rossell, a political science professor
at Boston University who studies English-language policy.
"It's like Lyndon Johnson saying, 'I'm going to alleviate
poverty.' Obviously you can't alleviate poverty in a free
society, but it sounds good."
Federal officials defend their efforts. A separate
provision in the No Child Left Behind law that requires
states to include English-language learners in their
reading and mathematics tests, the officials say, will
push states to help such students learn English.
That provision is in Title I of the law, and it
requires that all English-language learners take state
standardized academic tests, in English, after they have
been in the United States for three years. That period can
be extended to five years on a case-by- case basis.
Because many states don't provide tests in languages
other than English, most English-language learners must
take such tests in English as soon as they enroll in U.S.
schools. Previously, many states didn't include
English-language learners in statewide testing until they
had attended U.S. schools for three years.
Now, states can lose part of their Title I funding,
which supports programs for disadvantaged students, if
they don't show that English-language learners are making
enough progress on state tests, or if they fail to test at
least 95 percent of such students.
"The expectation is that the students will become
proficient in the English language over a
three-to-five-year period of time," said Kathleen Leos,
the associate deputy undersecretary for the office of
English-language acquisition of the Department of
That may be the official expectation, but for many
Title III state plans, the objectives and definitions of
English proficiency are all over the map.
Michigan's plan seems to be among the most ambitious,
promising to bring 95 percent of students who are now at
the most basic level of learning English to full
proficiency in four years.
Mazin A. Heiderson, an education consultant for the
Michigan education department, said the goals were set
according to "guesswork on what is known plus what is
"Our definition of English-language proficiency is that
you can make it in all English classes without
English-language support," he explained. Such a student
would be expected to get about a C average in mainstream
classes, he said. "It's not reaching your optimal
On the other end of the spectrum is Minnesota, which
divides its English-language learners into three groups,
depending on how long they have been in special programs.
For those who have studied English for less than three
years, the state plans to move 2.5 percent to full
proficiency this school year. The goal is only slightly
higher for students who have studied from three to five
years, or six or more years.
By 2013, Minnesota says, it will have raised the
percentage of students who have been in programs for six
or more years and who are deemed fully proficient from 3.8
percent to 12 percent.
"That's completely too easy," said Ms. Rossell, who
helped lead the successful 2002 ballot-initiative campaign
in Massachusetts to curb bilingual education. She argues
that the goal should be at least 50 percent for
English-language learners who have been in programs for
six or more years.
California, which has 1.6 million English- language
learners, far more than any other state, falls somewhere
in the middle range of states' goals. California says that
this school year it will move 30 percent of its students
who have been in programs for four or more years (and two
other small categories of English-language learners) to
California promises to raise that rate to 46 percent in
Jan E. Mayer, the manager of the
language-policy-leadership office for the California
Department of Education, acknowledged that the state's
goals don't account for every English-language learner,
and thus don't ensure that California will leave no child
But she noted that the new Title III requirements to
report scores of all English-language learners to the
federal government will bring more attention to whether
each child is learning English.
Like education officials in many other states, the
California and Minnesota officials say they set targets
based on how well school districts are doing now—and tried
to set the bar so that districts would be pushed a bit to
'A First Step'
No one, it seems, wants to come down hard on states for
setting low goals for students who are learning English.
"I only give them a large benefit of the doubt because
the federal department was pretty slow in issuing the
regulations [for Title III]," said Don Soifer, the
executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a
conservative think tank based in Arlington, Va. "The
initial burden was clearly on the states to design the
program first based on what they had in place to begin
"This has to be thought of as a first step," added
Charlene Rivera, the executive director of George
Washington University's Center for Equity and Excellence,
and an expert on English-language learners. Many states
are grappling for the first time with definitions of
English proficiency, she said.
Almost all states said in their Title III plans that
they had created or were in the process of drafting
standards for English- language development. Many are also
commissioning new tests that measure English progress to
comply with the No Child Left Behind law. (See chart,
Ms. Rivera said the new tests likely would focus more
on academic English than tests now on the market do. When
the tests are in place, the states "will have to
recalibrate everything—and redefine their vision of
English proficiency," she noted.
Maria Hernandez Ferrier, the director of the office of
English-language acquisition and a deputy undersecretary
for the federal Department of Education, and Ms. Leos said
they were going easy on the states' progress goals until
the states have implemented their new accountability
systems for English-language learners.
Ms. Leos said the Education Department has approved the
Title III plans for 11 states and the District of
Columbia, and has told the rest of the states to fix
certain aspects of their plans for approval.
For instance, the department has asked a number of
states to provide more detail in their test data for
English-language learners, she said. If states were asked
to fix their AMAOs, it was because they missed including
all English-language learners in their projections, or for
reasons other than the actual difficulty of the goals.
Ms. Leos said that the states would have to fix any
problems with their baseline test data by Nov. 17, and
that by April 30, states were expected to turn in
standards for English-language proficiency and show how
those standards were linked to academic-content standards.
Ms. Leos initially said the letters that the department
had sent to the states concerning Title III could be found
on the department's Web site. As of late last week, the
letters were not on the site, nor had the department
released the letters to Education Week. The
newspaper obtained each state's Title III plan by filing a
request under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
The states that have full approval of Title III
sections are: Colorado, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana,
Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Utah,
Vermont, and West Virginia, as well as the District of
Several states said in their Title III plans that
research shows it takes five to seven years for students
to learn English.
Ms. Rivera, though, said such a time frame was
reasonable only if one was talking about helping students
learn academic English, rather than a command of social,
or conversational, English.
Many states have submitted plans that define English
proficiency as a score on an English-assessment test, but
don't incorporate how students perform on academic tests.
So the definition of English proficiency in those states
will depend on where the bar is set in the new
English-language assessments they are developing.
Ms. Ferrier says many states have neglected to teach
immigrant children academic English, and she hopes that
the new accountability for such children under the No
Child Left Behind Act will eventually change that. "A lot
of times, because there were no consequences, students
would stay in language-acquisition programs for years and
still have playground English," she said.