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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

Advocating for English Language Learners in NCLB

Feature Story by Janel Johnson - 3/14/2008

Advocates for English language learner students (ELL) gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss ways No Child Left Behind (NCLB) can better serve this group of nearly 5 million students who they say are being "left behind". 

ELLs are students who do not speak English as their native language and/or do not speak English with the same proficiency as their peers.  Contrary to popular stereotypes, 80 percent of ELL students are U.S. citizens, often the children of immigrants who speak other languages at home.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the number of ELLs rose 46 percent between 1990 and 2000. 

Panelists at a February 28 Campaign for High School Equity briefing acknowledged that NCLB is a step in the right direction, but doesn't go far enough to close the achievement gap between ELL and non-ELL students.  According to Phitsamay Uy of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, several changes need to be made to NCLB to move ELLs "beyond English proficiency and towards academic success."

Current statistics show a gap between the achievement of ELLs and non-ELLs. Thirty-one percent of non-ELLs scored at or above a "proficient" level on the reading section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, while only 4 percent of EL's were able to do so.  The NAEP test is the only nationally representative test that assesses students' progress in multiple subject areas, including reading, math, science, writing, and U.S. history.

The graduation rate of ELLs is also low.  According to the National Center on Educational Statistics, only 49 percent of freshman students classified as ELLs in 2000 went on to graduate from high school in 2004.

NCLB currently requires that schools accurately measure the achievement of all students, including ELLs.  However, NCLB leaves the task of creating assessments that evaluate ELL students on their English-language skills and their academic knowledge to the states. 

Advocates say that a big flaw in the law is that it does not give states much guidance as to how to develop assessments for ELL students. "Assessments do not adequately address what students are learning," said panelist Peter Zamora, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund (MALDEF). 

Zamora said that because of inadequate assessment of ELLs, they "have been denied the full benefit of the law's [NCLB] key reforms."  MALDEF is working to push Congress to amend NCLB to give states more support in developing and implementing appropriate assessments for ELL students.

Uy stated that initiatives for ELLs often ignore students of Asian descent because these students often become engulfed in the "model minority" stereotype, where it is assumed they will succeed academically with little outside help.

Uy argued that Southeast Asian students are often overlooked in conversations about helping ELL students.  "When we speak of ELL learners, we hear about Spanish, not others (languages)," Uy said.  Students who speak Hmong, Lao, or Vietnamese as their native language become "linguistically isolated" if they don't have access to resources and teachers who are able to fulfill their unique academic needs. 

Uy said that NCLB should be reformed so that "more federal and state resources are allocated to certify teachers to service ELLs and to provide more investment in translation services." 

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