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Published in Print: May 9, 2007, as NCLB Seen a DamperonBilingual Programs

NCLB Seen a Damper on Bilingual Programs

Some states and districts say testing requirements may discourage efforts.

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This school year, Roundy Elementary School in Columbus Junction, Iowa, stopped providing a 90- to 120-minute literacy block in Spanish each day for Latino students in the early grades who are new to English.

“We switched this year and went to full English immersion,” said Dan L. Vogeler, the principal of the 460-student school. “The number-one reason we changed was because of No Child Left Behind.”

While the federal No Child Left Behind Act does not specify what kind of instruction schools should use for English-language learners, it’s not hard to find examples of schools across the country where educators say they’ve discontinued bilingual education—or feel they might be forced to do so—because of accountability requirements for English-language learners.

They say the 5-year-old federal law has affected their programs because of its emphasis on testing and the fact that schools face penalties if they don’t make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, goals for particular subgroups of students, including English-language learners.

The law puts pressure on schools to show strong test scores in lower grades, even though it may take several years for students in bilingual programs to perform at or above grade level in both languages, said Deborah K. Palmer, an assistant professor of bilingual/bicultural education at the University of Texas at Austin.

“There’s not enough space in the accountability system to allow for innovations for four or five years,” she said.

The federal law’s indirect impact on bilingual programs has hardly been uniform. Since its enactment, the proportion of English-learners in bilingual education has increased slightly in Texas and stayed about the same in Illinois. Both states require the educational method.

But in New Jersey, another state that requires bilingual education, and in New York City, where it is also required, the number of students in such classes has dropped slightly.

And the number of students in those classes has decreased dramatically in Arizona and California, where voters have approved ballot measures in recent years to curtail bilingual education.

The Language of Testing

Robert Linquanti, the project director and senior research associate for WestEd, a nonprofit research-and-development agency based in San Francisco, said one of the most crucial state policies regarding the issue is whether states have tests in students’ native languages.

“If you can’t assess for high-stakes accountability in the language you’re instructing in, there’s going to be enormous pressure to switch to English,” he said.

In bilingual education, students are taught some subjects in their native languages at the same time they are learning English.

Although no data are available to show if the overall percentage of the nation’s English-language learners in bilingual classes has decreased over the past few years, data show that the popularity of bilingual education was declining before the NCLB legislation was signed into law in early 2002.

From 1993 to 2003, the proportion of ELLs who were receiving “some” or “significant” native-language instruction declined from 53 percent to 29 percent, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education.

Educators care about whether they can provide bilingual education because several sweeping analyses of research about English-learners—including a 2006 study by the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth—say the method has an edge over English-only methods in helping such students learn English and academic content.

California is a state where educators say the combination of state policy and the federal law has discouraged bilingual education.

Soon after passage in 1998 of Proposition 227, a state ballot measure designed to curb bilingual education, the percentage of English-learners in such programs dropped from 29 percent to 12 percent. Some school districts continued to offer such programs under a provision in Proposition 227 that permitted parents to seek waivers of English-only instruction. But since 2000, most California districts have given up on bilingual education—currently, just 6 percent of the state’s 1.6 million English-language learners, most of whom are Latino, receive bilingual education.

The No Child Left Behind Act requires that schools test students in mathematics and reading annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. It permits states to test English-learners in their native languages for the first three years they attend U.S. schools, with a possible extension of two years on a case-by-case basis. But California, like most states, administers the tests used to comply with the federal law only in English.

Ana Marroquin, the coordinator of services for English-learners for the 2,700-student Newman Crows Landing Unified School District in Newman, Calif., said it has become difficult to maintain support for a bilingual program that uses Spanish to help children make the transition to English because of the NCLB accountability provisions for English-learners.

“When we receive our adequate-yearly-progress [results], there’s a lot of talk about getting rid of the program, but they haven’t been able to justify it,” Ms. Marroquin said. One elementary school with a K-3 bilingual program has failed to make AYP for its English-language learners every year but one, while the other elementary school with the same kind of program has made AYP for that group, she said.

California’s 55,000-student Santa Ana Unified School District served 6,000 English-learners in bilingual programs in the 2002-03 school year, but now has only 800 students in such programs. Howard M. Bryan, the director of English-language development and bilingual programs, said community demands forced a change in policy that resulted in a cutback of bilingual programs. Because of the need to test students in English for both state and federal accountability systems, he doubts that most principals want to return to offering such programs.

States Vary

In neighboring Nevada, which also requires that state tests be given in English, the Clark County school district, which includes Las Vegas, has decreased its bilingual education classes dramatically since passage of the NCLB law.

A Mixed Picture

While some states require bilingual education, others have moved to restrict such programs.

Since the 2003-04 school year, the 302,800-student Clark County school system has phased out programs in which children were taught to read first in Spanish and then make the transition to English. Those programs had served 9,500 English-language learners in 19 schools. But the district is expanding its dual-language programs, which serve 2,340 English-language learners in seven schools.

Nancy M. Alamo, the director of programs for English-learners in Clark County schools, said a regional administrator closed the transitional-bilingual-education programs because he didn’t think they were effective.

Bilingual education programs are having an easier time surviving in Texas, New York, and Colorado, which provide some state tests in native languages.

The proportion of English-language learners in bilingual education in Texas has increased to 54 percent from 51 percent since enactment of the federal law. Texas requires bilingual education in the elementary grades and provides reading and math tests in Spanish in those grades.

Still, some educators say they’ve altered their programs so that children can do well under NCLB, sometimes in ways not recommended by researchers.

“We do stress that, from the minute the child walks in the door, the child needs to learn English,” said Georgina K. Gonzalez, the director of programs for English-learners for the Texas Education Agency.

Ms. Palmer, of the University of Texas, concluded in a still-unpublished study that the accountability provisions of the NCLB act are “corrupting” bilingual education programs in six Austin elementary schools.

“Teachers are very influenced by the language their kids will be tested in. They tailor their instruction to that language,” she said. “Bilingual education ends up being monolingual education in the language of the high-stakes test, until the test is over [each year].”

In Colorado, educators at bilingual education programs say they’ve adjusted their practices to ensure they can make AYP. Colorado provides its 3rd and 4th grade reading tests in Spanish.

At Pioneer Bilingual Elementary School in Lafayette, Colo., teachers increase the amount of English instruction to 80 percent of class time for the two months before 4th and 5th graders take the state test. They go back to teaching half in Spanish and half in English after the test, said the school’s principal, Sandra Mendez.

And because of NCLB, students in Colorado’s 24,000-student St. Vrain Valley district are being moved out of bilingual programs in earlier grades than experts recommend, according to Mary Sires, the district’s executive director of student services.

“You cannot afford to not move those children into English much sooner than research would tell you is appropriate because the test is high-stakes,” she said.

Mr. Vogeler, of the Iowa school that switched to English immersion, said the program might have received more support if the state had provided tests in Spanish.

Mr. Vogeler isn’t yet convinced that the district has made the right move. “Before I make my judgment, I want to see the data,” he said.

Vol. 26, Issue 36, Pages 5,12

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