No Child Effect on English-Learners Mulled
February 24, 2006
Teachers welcome attention, fault focus on test scores
By Mary Ann Zehr
Educators who specialize in teaching English-language learners are of mixed
minds about the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
They agree that the 4-year-old law has brought unprecedented attention to those
students by requiring schools to isolate test-score data for English-learners.
The growing awareness of the challenges such students face, they note, has
spurred an increase in professional development, particularly for teachers of
They disagree, though, on whether changes in instruction spurred by the law have
been positive or negative overall. And many of them say it’s wrong to penalize
schools whose English-learners’ test scores fall short.
Such conflicting opinions reflect the continuing national debate over President
Bush’s flagship education initiative, as its effects reverberate through public
schools across the country.
Janina J. Kusielewicz, the supervisor of basic skills and bilingual education
for the public schools here in this New Jersey district, expresses an
ambivalence about the law that many of her colleagues nationwide share.
“I don’t like to give the No Child Left Behind Act any credit, but it has given
[English-as-a-second-language] teachers clout in the mainstream,” she said. She
added, though, that “the fact it’s punishing schools for having a high number of
English-language learners is unconscionable.”
It’s unrealistic, many educators say, that the law requires such students to
take the same state academic tests as children who have been speaking English
all their lives. The law does permit states to provide tests in students’ native
languages, but only 10 states do so, and then mostly only in Spanish and not
necessarily for both reading and math.
When English-learners score well on the standardized tests, educators say, it’s
often because they have reached fluency in English. Such students, they say, are
then taken out of the ELL category, leaving behind those with weaker English
skills, whose performance can subject their schools to sanctions under the
Requirements for Schools
The No Child Left Behind Actan overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act signed into law by President Bush in January 2002requires that
schools break down test results for various subgroups of students, including
English-language learners. The schools must reach the same accountability goals
for each subgroup that they must meet for all students.
Schools face sanctions, such as being required to permit their students to
transfer to other schools, if even one subgroup fails to make the level of
adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the state has set to comply with the law.
Many schools have failed to make AYP because the test scores of their
English-learners were too low.
Some educators say that schools have responded to the pressure to raise test
scores for children who speak little English by narrowing the curriculum.
Then there are those who contend that the law has indirectly caused schools to
match the language of instruction with the language of tests, regardless of what
approach to language would work best for their English-learners.
For example, some schools have abandoned bilingual education in favor of
English-only methods because of the law’s requirement that students must
eventually take tests in English.
But, if the state has a corresponding test in students’ native language, other
schools have permitted teachers to teach almost exclusively in that languageand
cut back on English instruction.
The law requires states to give all students standardized tests in reading and
mathematics in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. It permits states to
give both the math and reading tests to students in their native languages for
three years, and a fourth or fifth year on a case-by-case basis.
Teaching English-Language Learners
The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP, is a model for teaching
English and academic content simultaneously.
• Write content objectives clearly for students.
• Write language objectives clearly for students.
• Explicitly link concepts to students' backgrounds and experiences.
• Emphasize key vocabulary (e.g., introduce, write, repeat, and highlight) for
• Use a variety of techniques to make content concepts clear (e.g., visuals,
hands-on activities, demonstrations, and gestures.)
• Provide frequent opportunities for interactions and discussion between teacher
and student and among students, and encourage elaborated responses.
• Provide sufficient waiting time for student responses.
SOURCE: Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners. The SIOP
Kathleen Leos, the director of the office of English-language acquisition at the
U.S. Department of Education, said recently that if schools narrow the
curriculum for English-learners or teach to the language of the test to comply
with NCLB, they are misinterpreting the law.
“We’re not funding programs, we’re funding students. We’re funding language
acquisition and academic achievement,” she said. “How you choose to do that is
left up to the state.”
Eva D. Rogozinski, the ESL resource teacher at Christopher Columbus Middle
School in Clifton, has mixed views about the law’s impact on English-learners.
Because of the law, she said, “there’s more communication between ESL teachers
and mainstream teachers, and the English-language learners aren’t thought of as
a separate entity.” She doubts that her district would have provided extensive
training in ESL strategies to mainstream middle and high school teachers without
the federal law.
Ms. Rogozinski is one of 20 teachers at her school trained in the Sheltered
Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP, which is a model for simultaneously
teaching ESL students academic content and English. It was co-developed by the
Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics.
The ongoing training has improved instruction for English-language learners, Ms.
Rogozinski said. As an example, she said mainstream teachers are more likely to
draw those students out in discussions instead of assuming they can’t respond to
But Ms. Rogozinski resents that Columbus Middle School has been put on a “needs
improvement” list under the federal law in part because English-language
learners didn’t meet the state’s goals for adequate yearly progress. It’s simply
not fair for schools to be put under so much pressure to improve the scores of
English-learners on a test that wasn’t designed for them, she argues.
About 60 percent of the students in the Clifton public schools, located in a
suburb of Newark, N.J., come from homes where a language other than English is
spoken. About 750 of the district’s 10,600 students, or some 7 percent, are
English-language learners. Ninety-three of the 1,300 students at Columbus Middle
School are English-learners.
Impact in the Classroom
In the camp of those who believe that the No Child Left Behind Act has been more
of a detriment than a benefit to English-language learners is one of the few
researchers who have studied the impact that the law has had on instruction.
For her doctoral dissertation, Kate Menken, an assistant professor of bilingual
education and the teaching of English to speakers of other languages at City
College of the City University of New York, interviewed
128 educators and English-language learners at 10 high schools in the city
during the 2003-04 school year about the effects of the law. She observed
classes at four schools.
“The focus I’ve mostly seen is test ‘drill and kill,’ ” said Ms. Menken.
She added, “English as a second language, which used to be guided by research
and experience of effective methods for English-language learners, is now guided
by the test.”
For example, she writes in her research paper, ESL classes in New York City now
emphasize literature and literary analysis rather than more communicative
aspects of the language because that’s what students need to know for the New
York state English Language Arts Regents Exam. That test is used by the state
for accountability under the federal law and as a high school exit exam.
Ms. Menken documents in her research how some schools have increased the amount
of time spent on ESL to help students pass the Regents English test, which must
be taken in English. But in other subjects, some teachers have actually
decreased the amount of time they spend teaching Englishwhen the Regents test
for their subject matter is available in students’ native languages. Alba A.
Ortiz, a special education and bilingual education professor at the University
of Texas at Austin, has noticed that some Texas schools are also matching the
language of instruction with the language of the test. Texas provides its
reading and math tests in Spanish for grades 3-6.
“You will have an elementary school, and the students are being tested in
Spanish,” she said. “Then the early-grade teachers want to teach only in Spanish
so the students will pass the test, but the 4th and 5th grade teachers are
frustrated they don’t get students who can be proficient in English before they
reach middle school.”
Joseph Telles, a program coordinator for English-learners in Local District
7 of the Los Angeles Unified School District, says the disaggregation of test
scores for English-learners required by the federal law “has shone the light on
our group.” He added that “now we have a lot more focused in-service training”
for teachers on how to work with English-language learners.
Many educators see the increase in professional-development programs on how to
teach English-language learners as a bright spot in the implementation of the
“The No Child Left Behind Act is certainly having an impact on English-language
learners at the classroom level,” Deborah Short, the director of language
education and academic development for the Center for Applied Linguistics, a
nonprofit research organization on language, said in an e-mail response to
questions for this story.
“One example,” she wrote, “is the number of grade-level and content-area
teachers who are participating in specialized professional development in order
to instruct these students more effectively.”
The center provided the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol training for
Columbus Middle School in Clifton and is including the school in an ongoing
study of the effectiveness of the model for teaching English-learners.
Mainstream teachers are in their second year of the training, and it’s clear
that some are applying what they’ve learned.
On the same day in six different classrooms recently, teachers wrote on the
blackboard a learning objective for language and one for academic contenta SIOP
In one class, for example, the language objective was for students to use the
math terms of numerator, denominator, mixed number, and improper fraction.
In teaching how to calculate the surface of a cylinder or a rectangular prism,
Nadia Dubanowitz, an 8th grade math teacher, asked her students to cut the
outlines of those objects from a one-dimensional form on a sheet of paper and
then fold them into three-dimensional forms. The class of 22 students has eight
Ms. Dubanowitz taught with hands-on activities even before her SIOP training,
which encourages the method. Because of the training, though, “I focus more on
vocabulary than we did before,” she said. “I use more visuals.”
Michele Trigo, another math teacher, has posted a “word wall” in her classroom
that reminds students of new math vocabulary, which is also a SIOP suggestion.
One of the SIOP methods that she’s found particularly effective is having
students say at the end of the lesson a sentence beginning with any of the
following expressions: “I think,” “I know,” “I learned,” or “I wonder.”
After a recent lesson on circles and circumferences, she asked each student to
do that exercise.
“I learned that to find the radius, you have to divide the diameter by 2,”
said one girl, who is fluent in English.
But for a boy who moved here from Puerto Rico a year ago, it’s not easy to
express in English what he has learned.
“I learned that,” he said, pointing to the blackboard.
“What’s that?” asked Ms. Trigo.
“Circumference,” he said.
“What’s the formula for circumference?” she asked.
The youth mumbled an answer.
“What’s the number for pi?” she asked.
“Catorce [fourteen],” he said in Spanish.
“Tell me in English. Did you write it down?”
“Three-point-one-four,” he said, after checking his notes.