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English Learners Left Behind

Despite the often reasoned protestations heard from many of our colleagues in the civil rights community, in the early nineties, the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) stepped aboard the accountability train. The promise that English language learners would benefit from schools being held accountable for their academic achievement was encouraging and we were convinced that states and schools would live up to their responsibilities to educate English language learners and measure their progress in a valid manner.

The 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provided us the tools to hold schools accountable for the achievement of English language learners. The law contained provisions that required, in more deliberate language than ever, that Title I address the educational needs of English learners. Other provisions in the law gave parents of English learners tools to help them participate in their child’s education by requiring that information about program services and outcomes be provided in a language and form that was accessible. Most importantly, the reauthorized law set forth assessment requirements that addressed the unique language needs of English learners. Provisions that English learners could be assessed in their native language "to the extent practicable" were included based on the success of states that had successfully incorporated such assessments into their accountability systems. The law was clear: states, aided by the federal government, would develop the high-quality assessments they needed to measure the academic progress of English learners.

The 2002 reauthorization of ESEA went even further in assuring that schools would be held accountable for the achievement of English language learners. The 5.5 million English learners in our schools are now one of the subgroups whose achievement must be accounted for in determining whether a school is making adequate yearly progress. As the nation's demographic profile changes, an increasing number of schools count English learners as a significant part of their population. These schools now need their English learners to demonstrate their achievement if the school is to maintain its academic standing. In addition, schools are now required to assess English learners on their English proficiency and their academic ability annually. And the law also included stronger provisions to ensure all students were tested in a valid and reliable manner.

Yet today, despite a decade of assurances, the overwhelming majority of the states are subjecting English learners to tests that are written in a language they do not understand and without appropriate accommodations based on their language needs. These test results are not valid and reliable, and therefore they do not provide any information about the academic achievement of English learners.

So why do we continue to see English learners left out of accountability systems and hear concerns from schools that these students are lowering their overall achievement levels? The answer takes us beyond the law to where promises are kept. And that is in providing schools the tools needed to implement the law. We must first start with the U.S. Department of Education holding the states accountable for developing tests that are valid and reliable for English learners. Many states are resisting the investment of financial and political resources to ensure that state mandated tests provide real academic information about how English learners are progressing. Currently, no state has submitted a full accountability plan that provides for appropriate assessment of English proficiency and academic content for all English learners – yet the Department of Education has already approved all state plans submitted.

We also need larger investments in services for English learners if schools are to hire appropriately trained teachers, implement research-based curricula, and support these students as they gain proficiency in English and achieve high academic standards. For the last three years, the federal government has proposed the same amount of funding for English learners despite the rapid annual growth in their numbers (the number cited by the Department of Education has risen from 4.6 million to the current 5.5 million in the last two years). Schools need high quality assessments if they are to going to be able to demonstrate that they have used their new resources well. Instead, the Department of Education FY2005 budget once again freezes funding for bilingual education/ESL, eliminates 38 important education programs and proposes the smallest increase in education funding since 1996.

NABE is still on the accountability train. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to convince millions of English learners, their parents, and their teachers that their stop is finally coming up.

Delia Pompa is the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE). NABE, founded in 1975, is a national nonprofit organization representing over 5.5 million students who are limited in their English proficiency.

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