Secretary of Education Rod Paige last week announced two policy changes that will give states and school districts greater flexibility in handling students with limited English skills under the No Child Left Behind Act.
The new policies will provide more pliancy in assessing such students and demonstrating their academic progress, the secretary said at a Feb. 19 press conference.
“We want to make sure the law is carried out,” Mr. Paige said, in explaining why the federal government has seen the need to issue the revisions. “But we want to make sure the law makes common sense.”
"[T]he policy rewards schools for when they are accomplishing the goal they seek to reach, which is proficiency.”
The first rule change says that schools are no longer required to give children with limited proficiency in English their state’s regular reading test if such students have been enrolled in a U.S. school for less than a year.
Schools must still give those students the state’s mathematics test, but they may substitute an English-proficiency test for the reading one during the first year of enrollment.
As was true before, states have a one-year grace period for new English-language learners in which they don’t have to include such students’ scores in their calculations for “adequate yearly progress” under the federal law.
Under the second policy change, the department will permit states to count students who have become proficient in English within the past two years in their calculations of adequate yearly progress for English- language learners.
“Since many schools are constantly absorbing new English- language learners, the policy rewards schools for when they are accomplishing the goal they seek to reach, which is proficiency,” Mr. Paige said.
The new policies will still have to go through a formal process to become official regulations, Ronald J. Tomalis, a counselor to the secretary, explained after the press conference. He said Mr. Paige used his “transitional authority” to implement the changes, which are effective immediately.
David P. Driscoll, the commissioner of education in Massachusetts, said both changes are welcome and make sense.
The fact that schools will no longer have to give a regular reading test to some students who don’t know any English at all is an important change, he said.
“For kids who are in their first year in this country and whose first language isn’t English, it’s not only unproductive, but it’s illogical to test them with an English test,” Mr. Driscoll said.
The second revision is also a positive move, Mr. Driscoll said, because under the previous system, schools didn’t get any credit for the students whom they helped master the language. Such children were automatically moved out of the subgroup even though they were the most likely to do well on tests.
A ‘Short-Term Fix’?
Nick Smith, a spokesman for the Georgia education department, said his state’s concerns about implementation of the No Child Left Behind law have been focused on special education students and English-language learners. With regulations issued in December on testing students with disabilities and now the revised policies on English-language learners, the federal agency has addressed most of Georgia’s issues with the law, he said.
“They are recognizing the need that states have for flexibility, yet maintaining the strong accountability standards,” Mr. Smith said.
Patricia Loera, the legislative director for the National Association for Bilingual Education in Washington, said her organization supports the two new policies but wishes that the Education Department would have taken them a step further.
“It’s a short-term fix,” she said. The more substantive issue is that most states still don’t have available academic tests that are valid and reliable for testing the academic achievement of English-language learners, she said.
Don Soifer, the executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank based in Arlington, Va., said the two new rules for English-language learners seemed to be sound policy, fit the specific language of the federal law, and address the needs of “reasonable policymakers.”