Keeping NCLB Reauthorization in Mind

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 17, 2008 2 min read
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In the final “interpretation” of Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act published in the Federal Register today, the U.S. Department of Education has backed off on a couple of the most controversial requirements it had included in its proposal for the interpretation that was published May 2. Update: See my article about the final interpretation, “Education Officials Back Down on Some Proposed ELL Mandates,” at

But federal education officials would still like to see some of those proposed requirements included in the reauthorization of NCLB, according to Kathryn M. Doherty, a special assistant to the Education Department’s deputy secretary, Raymond Simon. She told me at the LEP Partnership meeting this week here in Washington that “of all the ones we backed off on, we still think they’re a good idea.” And she added that federal officials hope the U.S. Congress will consider those initially proposed requirements for the reauthorization.

The Education Department decided to “strongly encourage” instead of require states to match the same criteria they use for deciding if students are proficient in English under Title III with the criteria they set for students to leave the category of being English-language learners under Title I. State education officials, particularly from California, had sharply criticized the proposed mandate to match the two sets of criteria, and federal officials decided not to carry through on the matter with an iron hand. But the interpretation notes that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings “urges Congress to carefully consider and address, during reauthorization of the ESEA, the inconsistency of English language proficiency definitions across Title I and Title III.”

At the same time, the Education Department stuck by a requirement from the May 2 proposal that is likely to still be of concern to some state education officials. Under the final interpretation, states will be allowed only to consider how long English-language learners have been enrolled in English-language programs when setting targets for them, not factors such as their grade level or what stage they are at in learning English.

James McCobb, the director of Title III for the Vermont Department of Education, challenged Ms. Doherty on that requirement at the LEP Partnership meeting, contending that it will unfairly require Vermont to reset its targets for how students make progress in learning English. He said research on ELLs backs Vermont’s practice of having expectations for students to learn English faster if they are in lower grades and at the beginning stages of learning the language. "[Research] shows that kids at lower grades and lower English proficiency levels make greater progress,” he said. He contended that NCLB is supposed to be about “scientifically based research,” yet the Education Department is barring Vermont from setting its targets according to research findings.

Ms. Doherty countered from the podium at the meeting that “the time in instruction is related to the proficiency level, and that’s the point here.” She mentioned later to me that it appears legislators on “both sides of the aisle” in Congress are supportive of the Education Department’s view on this issue.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.