Hurdles Remain High for English-Learners

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 02, 2008 8 min read
Ong Vue, a senior at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif., listens in English class. A Hmong refugee, she had no formal schooling until age 15, but her test scores have counted in gauging her school’s accountability status under the No Child Left Behind Act.
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Ong Vue’s very first day of school came when she was 15 and was enrolled in 9th grade at Luther Burbank High School after arriving here as a refugee from Thailand.

The Hmong teenager says her family couldn’t afford to send her to school in Thailand. When she started at Luther Burbank, she spoke Thai and Hmong, but no English.

Four years later, Ms. Vue is a senior at the 1,970-student school and has passed the math section of California’s high school exit exam. She plans to attend community college in the fall, and hopes to become an elementary school teacher.

Despite her clear academic progress, Ms. Vue’s showing on standardized tests has been a handicap in her school’s quest to meet the yardstick for adequate yearly progress, or AYP, under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

She failed to score as “proficient” or above on the state’s high school exit exam in 10th grade—the key measure California uses to determine AYP at the high school level. Like many English-language learners at Luther Burbank, she didn’t pass the test’s math section until 11th grade, and is still waiting to hear if she passed the English section, which she has taken several times.

Her experience is an example of why some educators here say the accountability provisions of the law don’t provide a complete picture of the quality of education at a school that has a high number of ELL students. They argue that the federal accountability system puts a negative label on schools that receive students who have little or no academic preparation, even though the schools may help them make significant progress.

Many educators nationwide share the feeling that the NCLB law isn’t flexible enough to reflect the gains made by their students, particularly those with academic challenges. Some have called for changes that would let a school more precisely measure students’ academic growth, rather than try to ensure that all students meet rigid academic targets.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings responded to such concerns with a pilot program that would let states track and use individual students’ academic progress in assuring accountability under the NCLB law. In December, the secretary said she would approve all states that wanted to use “growth models” as long as they were able to meet the department’s criteria for participation. (‘Growth’ Pilot Now Open to All States, Dec. 12, 2007.)

“I’m challenging whether what is being described as a ‘standards-based curriculum’ … will give access to success in college and rewarding work,” said Ted Appel, now in his fourth year as the principal of Luther Burbank High, which has now met the AYP yardstick for two years in a row. “We should be focused on teaching a rich curriculum.”

High Bar

In California, students have to score at the “proficient” level or above on the state’s high school exit exam when they first take it in 10th grade to help their schools make AYP under the federal law. On average in the state, 47 percent of English-language learners pass the math section on the first try, and 36 percent pass the English section on the first try.

Social studies teacher Elisabeth Belan teaches a lesson on economics to English-learners in her class at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif.

Even when English-learners pass the exit exam the first time, they often miss the higher bar of proficient or above, which is what counts for AYP. For example, at Luther Burbank, 51 percent of ELLs passed the English test on the first try in 2007, but 23 percent scored proficient or above.

Mr. Appel said he resists urging teachers to spend a lot of time on certain standards that are heavily tested, rather than providing a balanced curriculum.

And even though more than half of Luther Burbank’s students are English-language learners, the school this year was removed from the NCLB “program improvement” list, where it had been for six years.

Mr. Appel plays down that milestone—he said making AYP this year was due in part to a few more 10th graders who cleared the hurdle of proficient or above on the California High School Exit Exam on their first try.

In addition, the school made AYP for its English-learners only after the state agreed to adjust the number of Luther Burbank students in the ELL category, which is allowed under state policy and federal law.

“We’re being looked at as so much better, even though the differences are marginal,” Mr. Appel said.

Still, Mr. Appel said that the school’s being removed from the “program improvement” list gives him a platform to criticize some aspects of the NCLB law.

The law requires that students be tested annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once during high school. Schools must show sufficient gains in performance for students overall as well as for certain subgroups, including English-learners, to make AYP and avoid possible penalties.

Teachers at Luther Burbank High who work with English-learners say they focus on improving literacy and critical-thinking skills rather than on test preparation.

“We have a culture to continue on the upswing,” said Larry Ferlazzo, an English and social studies teacher who teaches many ELLs and whose blog about educational Web sites that work well with such students has a national following.

Focus on Training

Mr. Ferlazzo said having ELLs at Luther Burbank has helped the school improve, because “a lot of teaching methods for ELLs are good teaching methods for all students.”

He is glad the school decided to implement a common curriculum for English across the whole 9th grade, including for ELLs who are newcomers. In addition, he said, there’s been a big push to get all the school’s teachers trained in methods intended to make lessons understandable for ELLs, called “specially designed academic instruction in English,” or SDAIE.

And he said the school’s move toward creating “small learning communities,” in which about 300 students spend their high school years with one another and the same group of teachers, has helped support students’ academic progress.

Most of the school’s students are members of minorities: About 20 percent are African-American, 27 percent are Latino, and 42 percent are of Asian heritage.

In Jen Adkins’ first-period English class, students spend the class period in a computer lab writing reflections about “senior projects” that they’ve already created. The class contains a mix of native speakers of English and English-language learners, who are primarily Hmong or Latino.

Jose Lumbreras, 18, wants to be an elementary school teacher, and spent time as an assistant in the 3rd grade of a local elementary school for his senior project, which he has presented with photos and writing.

For his senior project, Yeng Vang, also 18, explored his Hmong heritage by researching the history and customs of the Hmong, a minority group from Laos, and has written a paper about what he learned.

The two seniors, both English-learners, said their high school has improved over the past few years and has served them well.

“They teach you well,” said Mr. Vang, who was born in the United States and who intends to enlist in the military after graduation. “They go slowly, and if you don’t get it, you go back. They keep on bothering you until you learn it.”

Both students, who didn’t speak English when they entered school, are set to graduate on time next week. They have passed the math and English sections of the exit exam. But their scores hurt the school’s ability to make AYP in past years, either in math or in reading.

Mr. Vang scored as proficient on the math section of the exit exam on his first try, but he didn’t on the English part, which he passed in 11th grade. Mr. Lumbreras’ test scores were a hindrance in both academic areas; he didn’t score as proficient on either section of the test in 10th grade. He passed both in 11th grade.

‘Eat Breakfast’

Rather than focus on test preparation, teachers at Luther Burbank believe they serve students best by concentrating on classroom substance.

On a recent day, even though it was the day before the school’s spring administration of the English part of the exit exam, Ong Vue’s English and social studies classes did not focus on test preparation.

In English class, Pam Blust led students in reading a book, The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, the young-adult classic about a couple of brothers who are being raised by a 20-year-old sibling.

Ms. Blust started the class by having students write for seven minutes about “a time you felt like an outsider,” and followed up with a discussion. Then she read aloud, stopping occasionally to make sure the students understood.

They seemed engaged. At one point in the story, the brother who is the guardian hits Ponyboy, one of his charges. Ms. Blust asked the students why they thought he did that.

“He was angry,” said one student. “He was scared,” said another.

Ms. Blust said nothing about the administration of the exit exam the next day except to announce it and add: “Get a good night’s sleep. Eat breakfast.”

In an interview, she said that some parents of her immigrant students believe it’s shameful for them not to pass the exit exam, even though many have been in the United States for only a short time.

“We’re all telling [students] that if they don’t get their diploma, life doesn’t stop for them,” Ms. Blust said. She lets them know that even if they fail to secure a high school diploma, they still can continue their education by enrolling in a community college and taking more English-as-a-second-language classes.

Ong Vue may face just such a situation. A couple of weeks after she took the English exit exam in May, she said in a phone interview she was not sure she had passed. She did not expect to hear if she passed the exam until after school was out, and decided not to attend next week’s graduation ceremonies.

“I didn’t graduate, so I don’t want to go,” she said. But she’s listened to the advice of her teachers at Luther Burbank and has enrolled in Sacramento City College.

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Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the June 04, 2008 edition of Education Week as Hurdles Remain High for English-Learners


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