Federal act leaving whole states behind
Los Angeles Daily News
May 18, 2005

By Christopher Jepsen, Guest Columnist,
 Law unrealistic on time required to learn English as second tongue

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently announced a change in the implementation of the Bush administration's No Child Left
Behind Act that has  many California educators cheering -- cautiously.

To meet federal standards, Spellings will allow states more flexibility in exempting  special-education students from testing and in how they measure schools' success. Even more  important, the secretary indicated a willingness to consider reforming other parts of the act,  provided the changes don't weaken fundamental principles or goals of the law.

For California, one element that urgently needs reform is how the act classifies and tests  students who are not proficient in English. One-third of the state's public elementary school students -- that's more than 1.5 million children -- are classified as "English learners."

Currently, the schools face conflicting incentives over how to deal with these students. On  the one hand, the act requires California schools to increase the number of students they  reclassify from "English learner" to "English proficient." On the other hand, the act requires all groups -- including English learners -- to show improvement in academic  achievement.

By themselves, both requirements are reasonable. Schools should strive for improvement in  English proficiency as well as academic achievement among their English learners. But if  students haven't reached a certain threshold of English proficiency, they simply cannot demonstrate their full academic ability on tests that are given in English.

Under the current law, increases in reclassification are likely to cause decreases in  academic test scores for English learners because the most proficient -- and consequently  highest scoring -- students are no longer part of that group. So, with improvement required in both areas, where does the incentive lie?

And then there's the financial lure: Schools now receive additional funding under the act  for each English-learner student they have, but a school loses that money once it reclassifies  a child from English learner to English-proficient student. So again, where does the incentive  lie?

There are other conflicts as well.

Both Proposition 227, which restricted bilingual education, and California testing  requirements assume that students can become English proficient in a single year. However, a  2004 report by the California Legislative Analyst's Office predicts that only half of Spanish-speaking students will be reclassified after six years. In a recent study published by  the Public Policy Institute of California, my co-author and I found that in 2003, the average  gains in proficiency among the state's Mandarin speakers -- the highest-gaining group -- were  nearly double that of Spanish speakers, but still well below No Child Left Behind Act goals.

One problem is that students spend only a fraction of their day in the classroom, and if  they are not speaking English the rest of the time, their proficiency development is seriously hampered. One California superintendent noted that playground language has changed from  English to Spanish over the past 20 years. Additionally, many English learners have limited  reading and writing skills in their native language, especially if their parents have little  education and income.

Such students are considered between languages, and accurately assessing their academic  abilities is difficult.

Given these challenges, the goals of the act -- though admirable -- are unrealistic for  California. Policy-makers need to recognize the complex relationship between proficiency in English and success in
academic achievement.

Of course, addressing the act's contradictions is easier said than done. In terms of test  scores, one approach is to focus solely on English proficiency before worrying about academic achievement at all. Several districts have instituted supplemental programs on weekends or during school breaks that focus exclusively on building English fluency.

Whatever the final policy solution, one thing is certain: Fluency in English is a basic  building block for a good quality of life in the United States, generally determining whether  students go on to college and have high earning potential. Considering the size of California's English-learner population, educating these students is essential to the state's  future economic and social well-being.

Christopher Jepsen is a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.  His recent publication, "English Learners in California Schools," is available at  www.ppic.org.

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