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Language Provision in NCLB Draft Plan Criticized

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 31, 2007 3 min read
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Educators and representatives of groups that follow issues involving English-language learners raised practical concerns last week about how a draft plan to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act would affect those students.

Particularly troublesome, they said, is a proposal in the “staff discussion draft” released by the House Education and Labor Committee to require states with more than 10 percent of ELLs who share the same language to create native-language assessments for that language group.

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Draft Bill Heats Up NCLB-Renewal Debate

At the least, most states would have to come up with new tests for reading and mathematics in Spanish. Fewer than a dozen states have developed such tests. Such a requirement could also force certain states to come up with assessments in far less common languages—Hmong, in Wisconsin, for example, or Ojibwa, in North Dakota.

Aside from noting the difficulty and expense of crafting such tests, academic experts say that native-language assessments work well only if they are used in conjunction with bilingual instruction, which is not required.

“The major omission here is a lack of attention to the language of instruction,” said Jamal Abedi, an education professor at the University of California, Davis. “Research says clearly that if students aren’t taught in their native language, then the assessment in the native language doesn’t do any good.”

In other provisions, the draft plan would set a deadline of two years from enactment of the NCLB reauthorization for states to devise alternative assessments that could be used for some English-language learners, such as simplified English, portfolio, or native-language tests.

It also would permit states to use tests of English-language proficiency instead of regular reading tests during that two-year window for ELLs with low levels of English proficiency, a practice that the federal Department of Education required Virginia and New York state to drop last school year.

Experts on ELLs agreed, however, that one particular proposal in the draft was on the mark: States would have to identify testing accommodations, such as reading test items aloud, for English-learners and show how they would prepare teachers to use those accommodations appropriately.

Advocates Split

The idea of requiring assessments in the native language drew the strongest early reactions last week from ELL advocates.

Mari B. Rasmussen, the director of programs for English-learners in North Dakota, called the proposal “ridiculous” because at least 10 percent of her state’s ELLs come from Ojibwa-speaking homes and, presumably, the state would have to create a test in that Native American language.

But Peter Zamora, the Washington regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, favored the requirement, saying it might encourage more school districts to implement bilingual education.

“We’ve seen a resistance [by states] to developing native-language assessments,” Mr. Zamora said. “This should provide a greater incentive to break through some of the bad politics around bilingual education.”

Another advocate of bilingual education, James Crawford, the president of the Institute for Language and Education Policy, in Takoma Park, Md., noted that the draft says that states would be required to develop native-language tests—but only if that requirement was “consistent with state law.” He characterized that language as “a loophole” and predicted that “it might create a perverse incentive for states to outlaw those assessments for students who could benefit from them.”

Aaron Albright, press secretary for Democrats on the House education committee, addressed that prediction by e-mail: “We haven’t seen a race to enact English-language-only laws for testing in the past and don’t expect to see one in the future if these proposed clarifications are enacted.”

One reader of the plan was disappointed that it said states could use portfolio tests as an option for alternative tests for ELLs.

Don Soifer, the executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Va., that generally opposes bilingual education, said such tests might be acceptable for use in an individual classroom, but not for school accountability purposes. “They are not objective. They are inconsistently applied,” he said.

He also is against a proposal in the draft that school districts could use native-language assessments for five years—up from three years in the current NCLB law—with the option of giving the tests for an additional two years to some students on a case-by-case basis.

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