U.S. Senators Hear Views about ELLs and NCLB

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 17, 2007 2 min read
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When the staff of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, convened a meeting on English-language learners and reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act recently, they invited two of the same five people who had testified last month before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Those two were Cornelia M. Ashby, from the Government Accountability Office, and Peter Zamora, the co-chair of the Hispanic Education Coalition. The meeting was April 10.

But the Senate staff also chose two panelists who hadn’t yet made presentations on Capitol Hill regarding reauthorization of NCLB. Valeria Silva, the chief academic officer for St. Paul public schools, in St. Paul, Minn., spoke about how English-language learners are subjected to an extraordinary amount of testing under NCLB. And Charlene Rivera, the executive director for the Center for Equity and Excellence in Education, at George Washington University, spoke about how tests for English-learners should be improved and how teachers should be better prepared to work with such students.

In a phone interview this week, Ms. Silva said she told the senators that English-language learners in her district shouldn’t have to be taking tests three or four times a year, as they are now. In addition, she recommended that new immigrants shouldn’t have to take the math and reading tests used for accountability purposes under NCLB until they’ve been in U.S. schools for three years. Currently the test scores of such students count for accountability purposes after they’ve attended U.S. schools for one year. Ms. Silva said she believes she was invited to be a panelist because the Council of the Great City Schools told congressional staff that the St. Paul school district had done a good job in implementing NCLB’s provisions for English-language learners. (In December, I wrote an article about both the strengths and weaknesses of St. Paul’s programs for English-learners, focusing on students of Hmong heritage.)

Ms. Rivera supports federal regulations that require schools to count the test scores of English-language learners for accountability purposes after they’ve been in the country for one year. But, particularly in English-language arts, the tests for such students need to be improved, she told me in an interview last week. In her presentation in Congress, she suggested that states develop alternative computerized tests that adapt the difficulty of test items according to how students answer questions while taking the test. “There would be a point where the student would stop, if he or she couldn’t move forward--so he or she wouldn’t have to sit through the whole assessment,” she explained to me in an interview.

Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), as well as the staff of a number of other senators, were present at the meeting, according to attendees.

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