Education Letter to the Editor

Seeing Omissions in Testimony on ELLs

April 17, 2007 2 min read

To the Editor:

I read the glowing profile of Peter Zamora, the Washington counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in your April 4, 2007, issue (“Voicing Concern for English-Learners in Debate Over NCLB”). I’ve also read Mr. Zamora’s recent testimony to a congressional subcommittee on English-language learners and the reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. There is much to admire and support in his testimony, such as the well-documented introductory information about English-language learners (including the correction of the stereotype of these students as foreign-born immigrants), the description of the flaws in NCLB-based assessments, the championing of dual-language immersion programs, and the nine recommendations to address his concerns about NCLB implementation.

What drives me crazy, however, is what is at various points missing from the testimony. First, there is no mention of the research literature on bilingual education (which is clear about the relative merits of both dual-language and transitional bilingual instruction over English-as-a-second-language and English-immersion instructional models). And yet, the testimony is eloquent about the need for native-language instruction and native-language assessment.

There also is total silence about the lack of a solid scientific basis for the U.S. Department of Education’s policy of assessing English-language learners’ English-language-arts knowledge after their being in an English-speaking school system for only 12 months. What of the harm done to these students and their teachers, parents, schools, and school districts when English-language learners’ “success” or “failure” is judged using assessment practices that are flawed? In New York, we have eloquent testimonies from teachers, teachers’ unions, English-language-learner and immigrant advocates, district superintendents, and others on the perverse and adverse effects of the one-year-exemption rule.

Also missing is a discussion of the benefits of using growth (or “value added”) models of language and academic assessment. Why the silence about native-language development as a legitimate goal of instruction for English-language learners, whether from an economic, national, or sociocultural perspective?

Mr. Zamora and others need to question the Education Department’s assumption that high-stakes testing improves learning and student outcomes. Both locally and nationally, we need to address these issues in our research and public advocacy. A failure to do so would be a disservice to the students and all the stakeholders who work on their behalf in good faith and with admirable dedication.

Luis O. Reyes

City University of New York

Lehman College

Bronx, N.Y.

The writer is the coordinator of the Coalition for Educational Excellence for English Language Learners, in New York City.

A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2007 edition of Education Week as Seeing Omissions in Testimony on ELLs