‘No Child’ Effect on English-Learners Mulled

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 24, 2006 9 min read
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Educators who specialize in teaching English-language learners are of mixed minds about the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

They agree that the 4-year-old law has brought unprecedented attention to those students by requiring schools to isolate test-score data for English-learners. The growing awareness of the challenges such students face, they note, has spurred an increase in professional development, particularly for teachers of regular classes.

They disagree, though, on whether changes in instruction spurred by the law have been positive or negative overall. And many of them say it’s wrong to penalize schools whose English-learners’ test scores fall short.

A vocabulary sheet lists math words at Christopher Columbus Middle School in Clifton, N.J.

Such conflicting opinions reflect the continuing national debate over President Bush’s flagship education initiative, as its effects reverberate through public schools across the country.

Janina J. Kusielewicz, the supervisor of basic skills and bilingual education for the public schools here in this New Jersey district, expresses an ambivalence about the law that many of her colleagues nationwide share.

“I don’t like to give the No Child Left Behind Act any credit, but it has given [English-as-a-second-language] teachers clout in the mainstream,” she said. She added, though, that “the fact it’s punishing schools for having a high number of English-language learners is unconscionable.”

It’s unrealistic, many educators say, that the law requires such students to take the same state academic tests as children who have been speaking English all their lives. The law does permit states to provide tests in students’ native languages, but only 10 states do so, and then mostly only in Spanish and not necessarily for both reading and math.

When English-learners score well on the standardized tests, educators say, it’s often because they have reached fluency in English. Such students, they say, are then taken out of the ELL category, leaving behind those with weaker English skills, whose performance can subject their schools to sanctions under the federal law.

Requirements for Schools

The No Child Left Behind Act—an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act signed into law by President Bush in January 2002—requires that schools break down test results for various subgroups of students, including English-language learners. The schools must reach the same accountability goals for each subgroup that they must meet for all students.

Schools face sanctions, such as being required to permit their students to transfer to other schools, if even one subgroup fails to make the level of adequate yearly progress, or AYP, the state has set to comply with the law.

Many schools have failed to make AYP because the test scores of their English-learners were too low.

Some educators say that schools have responded to the pressure to raise test scores for children who speak little English by narrowing the curriculum.

Then there are those who contend that the law has indirectly caused schools to match the language of instruction with the language of tests, regardless of what approach to language would work best for their English-learners.

For example, some schools have abandoned bilingual education in favor of English-only methods because of the law’s requirement that students must eventually take tests in English.

But, if the state has a corresponding test in students’ native language, other schools have permitted teachers to teach almost exclusively in that language—and cut back on English instruction.

The law requires states to give all students standardized tests in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. It permits states to give both the math and reading tests to students in their native languages for three years, and a fourth or fifth year on a case-by-case basis.

Teaching English-Language Learners

The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP, is a model for teaching English and academic content simultaneously.

• Write content objectives clearly for students.

• Write language objectives clearly for students.

• Explicitly link concepts to students’ backgrounds and experiences.

• Emphasize key vocabulary (e.g., introduce, write, repeat, and highlight) for students.

• Use a variety of techniques to make content concepts clear (e.g., visuals, hands-on activities, demonstrations, and gestures.)

• Provide frequent opportunities for interactions and discussion between teacher and student and among students, and encourage elaborated responses.

• Provide sufficient waiting time for student responses.

SOURCE: Making Content Comprehensible for English Language Learners. The SIOP Model 2004.

Kathleen Leos, the director of the office of English-language acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education, said recently that if schools narrow the curriculum for English-learners or teach to the language of the test to comply with NCLB, they are misinterpreting the law.

“We’re not funding programs, we’re funding students. We’re funding language acquisition and academic achievement,” she said. “How you choose to do that is left up to the state.”

Eva D. Rogozinski, the ESL resource teacher at Christopher Columbus Middle School in Clifton, has mixed views about the law’s impact on English-learners.

Because of the law, she said, “there’s more communication between ESL teachers and mainstream teachers, and the English-language learners aren’t thought of as a separate entity.” She doubts that her district would have provided extensive training in ESL strategies to mainstream middle and high school teachers without the federal law.

Ms. Rogozinski is one of 20 teachers at her school trained in the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol, or SIOP, which is a model for simultaneously teaching ESL students academic content and English. It was co-developed by the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics.

The ongoing training has improved instruction for English-language learners, Ms. Rogozinski said. As an example, she said mainstream teachers are more likely to draw those students out in discussions instead of assuming they can’t respond to questions.

But Ms. Rogozinski resents that Columbus Middle School has been put on a “needs improvement” list under the federal law in part because English-language learners didn’t meet the state’s goals for adequate yearly progress. It’s simply not fair for schools to be put under so much pressure to improve the scores of English-learners on a test that wasn’t designed for them, she argues.

About 60 percent of the students in the Clifton public schools, located in a suburb of Newark, N.J., come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. About 750 of the district’s 10,600 students, or some 7 percent, are English-language learners. Ninety-three of the 1,300 students at Columbus Middle School are English-learners.

Impact in the Classroom

In the camp of those who believe that the No Child Left Behind Act has been more of a detriment than a benefit to English-language learners is one of the few researchers who have studied the impact that the law has had on instruction.

For her doctoral dissertation, Kate Menken, an assistant professor of bilingual education and the teaching of English to speakers of other languages at City College of the City University of New York, interviewed 128 educators and English-language learners at 10 high schools in the city during the 2003-04 school year about the effects of the law. She observed classes at four schools.

“The focus I’ve mostly seen is test ‘drill and kill,’ ” said Ms. Menken. She added, “English as a second language, which used to be guided by research and experience of effective methods for English-language learners, is now guided by the test.”

For example, she writes in her research paper, ESL classes in New York City now emphasize literature and literary analysis rather than more communicative aspects of the language because that’s what students need to know for the New York state English Language Arts Regents Exam. That test is used by the state for accountability under the federal law and as a high school exit exam.

Ms. Menken documents in her research how some schools have increased the amount of time spent on ESL to help students pass the Regents English test, which must be taken in English. But in other subjects, some teachers have actually decreased the amount of time they spend teaching English—when the Regents test for their subject matter is available in students’ native languages. Alba A. Ortiz, a special education and bilingual education professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has noticed that some Texas schools are also matching the language of instruction with the language of the test. Texas provides its reading and math tests in Spanish for grades 3-6.

“You will have an elementary school, and the students are being tested in Spanish,” she said. “Then the early-grade teachers want to teach only in Spanish so the students will pass the test, but the 4th and 5th grade teachers are frustrated they don’t get students who can be proficient in English before they reach middle school.”

Focused Training

Joseph Telles, a program coordinator for English-learners in Local District 7 of the Los Angeles Unified School District, says the disaggregation of test scores for English-learners required by the federal law “has shone the light on our group.” He added that “now we have a lot more focused in-service training” for teachers on how to work with English-language learners.

Many educators see the increase in professional-development programs on how to teach English-language learners as a bright spot in the implementation of the law.

“The No Child Left Behind Act is certainly having an impact on English-language learners at the classroom level,” Deborah Short, the director of language education and academic development for the Center for Applied Linguistics, a nonprofit research organization on language, said in an e-mail response to questions for this story.

“One example,” she wrote, “is the number of grade-level and content-area teachers who are participating in specialized professional development in order to instruct these students more effectively.”

The center provided the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol training for Columbus Middle School in Clifton and is including the school in an ongoing study of the effectiveness of the model for teaching English-learners. Mainstream teachers are in their second year of the training, and it’s clear that some are applying what they’ve learned.

Math teacher Michele Trigo, left, gestures to students during a lesson called "I think...I know...I wonder." Mainstream teachers at the school use language-education methods to help English-learners.

On the same day in six different classrooms recently, teachers wrote on the blackboard a learning objective for language and one for academic content—a SIOP recommendation.

In one class, for example, the language objective was for students to use the math terms of numerator, denominator, mixed number, and improper fraction.

In teaching how to calculate the surface of a cylinder or a rectangular prism, Nadia Dubanowitz, an 8th grade math teacher, asked her students to cut the outlines of those objects from a one-dimensional form on a sheet of paper and then fold them into three-dimensional forms. The class of 22 students has eight ESL students.

Ms. Dubanowitz taught with hands-on activities even before her SIOP training, which encourages the method. Because of the training, though, “I focus more on vocabulary than we did before,” she said. “I use more visuals.”

Michele Trigo, another math teacher, has posted a “word wall” in her classroom that reminds students of new math vocabulary, which is also a SIOP suggestion.

One of the SIOP methods that she’s found particularly effective is having students say at the end of the lesson a sentence beginning with any of the following expressions: “I think,” “I know,” “I learned,” or “I wonder.” After a recent lesson on circles and circumferences, she asked each student to do that exercise.

“I learned that to find the radius, you have to divide the diameter by 2,” said one girl, who is fluent in English.

But for a boy who moved here from Puerto Rico a year ago, it’s not easy to express in English what he has learned.

“I learned that,” he said, pointing to the blackboard.

“What’s that?” asked Ms. Trigo.

“Circumference,” he said.

“What’s the formula for circumference?” she asked.

The youth mumbled an answer.

“What’s the number for pi?” she asked.

Catorce [fourteen],” he said in Spanish.

“Tell me in English. Did you write it down?”

“Three-point-one-four,” he said, after checking his notes.


A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘No Child’ Effect on English-Learners Mulled


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