NCLB Seen a Damper on Bilingual Programs
May 9, 2007
By Mary Ann Zehr
Some states and districts say testing requirements may discourage
This school year, Roundy Elementary School in Columbus
Junction, Iowa, stopped providing a 90- to 120-minute
literacy block in Spanish each day for Latino students
in the early grades who are new to English.
“We switched this year and went to full English
immersion,” said Dan L. Vogeler, the principal of the
460-student school. “The number-one reason we changed
was because of No Child Left Behind.”
While the federal No Child Left Behind Act does not
specify what kind of instruction schools should use
for English-language learners, it’s not hard to find
examples of schools across the country where educators
say they’ve discontinued bilingual education—or feel
they might be forced to do so—because of
accountability requirements for English-language
They say the 5-year-old federal law has affected their
programs because of its emphasis on testing and the
fact that schools face penalties if they don’t make
adequate yearly progress, or AYP, goals for particular
subgroups of students, including English-language
The law puts pressure on schools to show strong test
scores in lower grades, even though it may take
several years for students in bilingual programs to
perform at or above grade level in both languages,
said Deborah K. Palmer, an assistant professor of
bilingual/bicultural education at the University of
Texas at Austin.
“There’s not enough space in the accountability system
to allow for innovations for four or five years,” she
The federal law’s indirect impact on bilingual
programs has hardly been uniform. Since its enactment,
the proportion of English-learners in bilingual
education has increased slightly in Texas and stayed
about the same in Illinois. Both states require the
But in New Jersey, another state that requires
bilingual education, and in New York City, where it is
also required, the number of students in such classes
has dropped slightly.
And the number of students in those classes has
decreased dramatically in Arizona and California,
where voters have approved ballot measures in recent
years to curtail bilingual education.
The Language of Testing
Robert Linquanti, the project director and senior
research associate for WestEd, a nonprofit
research-and-development agency based in San
Francisco, said one of the most crucial state policies
regarding the issue is whether states have tests in
students’ native languages.
“If you can’t assess for high-stakes accountability in
the language you’re instructing in, there’s going to
be enormous pressure to switch to English,” he said.
In bilingual education, students are taught some
subjects in their native languages at the same time
they are learning English.
Although no data are available to show if the overall
percentage of the nation’s English-language learners
in bilingual classes has decreased over the past few
years, data show that the popularity of bilingual
education was declining before the NCLB legislation
was signed into law in early 2002.
>From 1993 to 2003, the proportion of ELLs who were
receiving “some” or “significant” native-language
instruction declined from 53 percent to 29 percent,
according to a study commissioned by the U.S.
Department of Education.
Educators care about whether they can provide
bilingual education because several sweeping analyses
of research about English-learners—including a 2006
study by the National Literacy Panel on
Language-Minority Children and Youth—say the method
has an edge over English-only methods in helping such
students learn English and academic content.
California is a state where educators say the
combination of state policy and the federal law has
discouraged bilingual education.
Soon after passage in 1998 of Proposition 227, a state
ballot measure designed to curb bilingual education,
the percentage of English-learners in such programs
dropped from 29 percent to 12 percent. Some school
districts continued to offer such programs under a
provision in Proposition 227 that permitted parents to
seek waivers of English-only instruction. But since
2000, most California districts have given up on
bilingual education—currently, just 6 percent of the
state’s 1.6 million English-language learners, most of
whom are Latino, receive bilingual education.
The No Child Left Behind Act requires that schools
test students in mathematics and reading annually in
grades 3-8 and once in high school. It permits states
to test English-learners in their native languages for
the first three years they attend U.S. schools, with a
possible extension of two years on a case-by-case
basis. But California, like most states, administers
the tests used to comply with the federal law only in
Ana Marroquin, the coordinator of services for
English-learners for the 2,700-student Newman Crows
Landing Unified School District in Newman, Calif.,
said it has become difficult to maintain support for a
bilingual program that uses Spanish to help children
make the transition to English because of the NCLB
accountability provisions for English-learners.
“When we receive our adequate-yearly-progress
[results], there’s a lot of talk about getting rid of
the program, but they haven’t been able to justify
it,” Ms. Marroquin said. One elementary school with a
K-3 bilingual program has failed to make AYP for its
English-language learners every year but one, while
the other elementary school with the same kind of
program has made AYP for that group, she said.
California’s 55,000-student Santa Ana Unified School
District served 6,000 English-learners in bilingual
programs in the 2002-03 school year, but now has only
800 students in such programs. Howard M. Bryan, the
director of English-language development and bilingual
programs, said community demands forced a change in
policy that resulted in a cutback of bilingual
programs. Because of the need to test students in
English for both state and federal accountability
systems, he doubts that most principals want to return
to offering such programs.
In neighboring Nevada, which also requires that state
tests be given in English, the Clark County school
district, which includes Las Vegas, has decreased its
bilingual education classes dramatically since passage
of the NCLB law.
Since the 2003-04 school year, the 302,800-student
Clark County school system has phased out programs in
which children were taught to read first in Spanish
and then make the transition to English. Those
programs had served 9,500 English-language learners in
19 schools. But the district is expanding its
dual-language programs, which serve 2,340
English-language learners in seven schools.
Nancy M. Alamo, the director of programs for
English-learners in Clark County schools, said a
regional administrator closed the
transitional-bilingual-education programs because he
didn’t think they were effective.
Bilingual education programs are having an easier time
surviving in Texas, New York, and Colorado, which
provide some state tests in native languages.
The proportion of English-language learners in
bilingual education in Texas has increased to 54
percent from 51 percent since enactment of the federal
law. Texas requires bilingual education in the
elementary grades and provides reading and math tests
in Spanish in those grades.
Still, some educators say they’ve altered their
programs so that children can do well under NCLB,
sometimes in ways not recommended by researchers.
“We do stress that, from the minute the child walks in
the door, the child needs to learn English,” said
Georgina K. Gonzalez, the director of programs for
English-learners for the Texas Education Agency.
Ms. Palmer, of the University of Texas, concluded in a
still-unpublished study that the accountability
provisions of the NCLB act are “corrupting” bilingual
education programs in six Austin elementary schools.
“Teachers are very influenced by the language their
kids will be tested in. They tailor their instruction
to that language,” she said. “Bilingual education ends
up being monolingual education in the language of the
high-stakes test, until the test is over [each year].”
In Colorado, educators at bilingual education programs
say they’ve adjusted their practices to ensure they
can make AYP. Colorado provides its 3rd and 4th grade
reading tests in Spanish.
At Pioneer Bilingual Elementary School in Lafayette,
Colo., teachers increase the amount of English
instruction to 80 percent of class time for the two
months before 4th and 5th graders take the state test.
They go back to teaching half in Spanish and half in
English after the test, said the school’s principal,
And because of NCLB, students in Colorado’s
24,000-student St. Vrain Valley district are being
moved out of bilingual programs in earlier grades than
experts recommend, according to Mary Sires, the
district’s executive director of student services.
“You cannot afford to not move those children into
English much sooner than research would tell you is
appropriate because the test is high-stakes,” she
Mr. Vogeler, of the Iowa school that switched to
English immersion, said the program might have
received more support if the state had provided tests
Mr. Vogeler isn’t yet convinced that the district has
made the right move. “Before I make my judgment, I
want to see the data,” he said.
Vol. 26, Issue 36, Pages 5,12