US study Learners of English left behind

Arizona Daily Star
State cites AIMS headway, points to Nogales experience
By Jeff Commings

Tucson, Arizona | Published:


A new report says many of the 5 million English-language learners in the United States are not getting the kind of education they need to succeed on the assessment tests that make or break their schools.
The report, commissioned by the federal Government Accountability Office and released Wednesday, contends that two-thirds of states, including Arizona, do not provide teachers and students with the right tools to achieve success as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act.
"If the goal is to get non-English speakers proficient in English, put some special effort into that initiative," said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, one of the four congressmen who requested the report. "They need to learn English; the school districts need to have the capacity and the resources to teach English."
The report analyzed data from the 2003-04 school year and found that the percentage of ELL students who passed their state's language-arts and mathematics tests was lower than the state's progress goals in nearly two-thirds of the 48 states studied. New York and Tennessee did not submit data.
In Arizona, only 32 percent of ELL students in grades three through eight passed the math portion of the 2004 test, according to the report. The national average was about 46 percent.
But changes have been taking place since that test was administered, said Tom Horne, Arizona superintendent of public instruction, using the Nogales Unified School District as an example. In 2002, 5 percent of ELL high-school students in that district passed at least one section of AIMS, according to the state Department of Education's Web site. In 2006, that rose to 20 percent.
Some of the solutions that worked in Nogales, Horne said, include 90 minutes daily of math instruction, detailed instructional goals for all ELL students and an end to promoting students to the next grade if they haven't earned it.
It's also working in the Sunnyside Unified School District at Gallego Basic Elementary School, where 84 percent of ELL students passed all sections of AIMS, Horne said. That school has been the focus of some state studies of its practices, including a recent one by the Center for the Future of Arizona. The school uses a consistent curriculum and has high accountability for student performance.
Horne said his team has been working to pass those techniques to struggling schools in the state so the education gap can be bridged quickly.
But it still boils down to the AIMS test and the scores that are used to determine a school's place in federal and state accountability systems. Since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, the first three years of an ELL student's scores in Arizona are allowed to be discarded because "they are not reliable," Horne said. After the third year, though, ELL students are expected to be able to take — and pass — the test in English. Arizona's rule is more lax than most states, which allow scores to be thrown out only for one year, Horne said.
The wording of the act, however, suggests that most ELL students might be able to take the test in their native language after the third year, a move some officials support.
"Students with limited English proficiency are to be assessed in a valid and reliable manner," the law states. "In addition, they must be provided with reasonable accommodations and be assessed, to the extent practicable, in the language and form most likely to yield accurate data on their academic knowledge."
Some school officials believe ELL students should be given the test in their native language, in order to better show what the student has learned.
"I think it'll give you a more accurate read on their proficiency," said Steve Holmes, director of language acquisition for the Tucson Unified School District.
Grijalva, a Democrat, said many ELL students are much smarter than they appear on tests because they have too much trouble getting over the language barrier.
"If No Child Left Behind is true to its principle, then we need to deal with the language issue, and English learners need to be factored in," he said.
U.S. Education Department spokesman Trey Ditto said the Bush administration recognizes the problem identified in the report and plans a conference in August of state officials and education experts to figure out better ways of testing students who have limited English abilities.
The department conducted its own study, involving 38 states, which found 25 are not providing sufficiently reliable test results for such students, Ditto said.
"We have said to the states, we will provide any of the tools necessary to bring you to the level we deem as the standard," he said.
On StarNet: Find statewide test scores, school profiles and more education-related coverage at
● Bloomberg News contributed to this story. ● Contact reporter Jeff Commings at 573-4191 or at