Federal

Proposed ELL Guidelines Criticized as Too Rigid

By Mary Ann Zehr — June 04, 2008 4 min read
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Education officials in several states with large English-language-learner populations are bristling at a proposal by the U.S. Department of Education that they say would curb their flexibility in deciding when children are fluent in English and if they still need special services for ells.

The comment period closed June 2 on the proposed “interpretation” of Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act, the main conduit of federal funds for English-language-acquisition programs, generating a two-inch stack of responses to the proposal published in the Federal Register on May 2. (“Consistent ELL Guides Proposed,” May 14, 2006.)

The responses include critical or skeptical comments from officials in states with some of the largest populations of English-learners, particularly California, Florida, Illinois, and Texas.

Education Department officials have said that a goal of the proposed interpretation is to create more consistency in how the federal education law is implemented for English-language learners. If made final as now written, the guidance is intended to reduce some variations among states, and among school districts within states in how they report the progress of students in learning English.

Elissa Leonard, an Education Department spokeswoman, said in an e-mail message that the department expects to publish a final version of the interpretation by the end of the summer and a timetable for implementation will be included in that notice. She said the department had received 73 comments—23 of them are from states.

Officials in California—which educates about a third of the nation’s 5.1 million English-language learners—submitted some of the most strongly worded criticism of the proposed interpretation.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and California State Board of Education President Theodore R. Mitchell wrote that the interpretation suggests “a completely new way” of defining English-language-proficiency goals under the law and that the proposed changes “conflict with the guidance and interpretations that the U.S. Department of Education provided in the past.”

Texas officials said that they would like to proceed with the approaches they now use to set goals for students with limited proficiency in English to acquire the language unless the department’s proposed interpretation is included in the pending reauthorization of the nclb law.

Little Flexibility Seen

One of the major objections of the top California education officials to the proposed interpretation is that it would require states to use the same criteria for determining if students have attained proficiency in English that they use to determine when students should leave special programs for English-learners.

California, along with Virginia and some other states, permits school districts to have the final word on when English-language learners should cease to receive special instruction in English. “Since standardization of these local criteria is exceedingly difficult, this interpretation will in effect require states to eliminate them and thereby restrict the role of teachers and parents in making educationally important decisions regarding program placement and instructional services,” the California officials wrote.

Parents and teachers would thus be “disenfranchised from participating in these important educational decisions,” they added.

Districts, Teachers Respond

Opposition to that same aspect of the proposed interpretation was also contained in statements submitted by the California School Boards Association, California State pta, Association of California School Administrators, Californians Together, California Teachers Association, and several California school districts.

Officials in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Oregon also criticized the proposed change, saying it would reduce the ability of school districts to make decisions about ells. The American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the Council of the Great City Schools took a similar view.

But officials from some other states, including Alabama, Delaware, and Indiana, favored requiring the criteria to be the same within states for students to attain proficiency in English and to leave programs.

While most of the comments submitted to the Education Department came from those representing state or national education agencies or organizations, a few school district officials or teachers also filed comments.

Some of them expressed concern that testing requirements under the No Child Left Behind law were robbing English-learners of important instructional time.

For that reason, some educators said they believe that schools should be able to continue to permit English-language learners to “bank” favorable test scores in the English domains of reading, writing, speaking, or listening, so they don’t have to be retested in that particular area.

The Education Department wants to put a stop to that practice and require students to be retested in all four domains until they test at least proficient in all of them.

“It is very time consuming and thus a big detractor from effective instructional time to continue to annually retest [limited-English-proficient] students in all four domains, particularly when they are proficient in three of the four,” wrote Jessica Loose, the lead English-as-a-second-language teacher for the 4,700-student Dare County school district in North Carolina.

Under the nclb law, English-learners must be included in the regular state standardized tests in mathematics and reading given in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school. In addition, English-learners in grades K-12 must be assessed each year by an English-language-proficiency test.

A version of this article appeared in the June 11, 2008 edition of Education Week as Proposed ELL Guidelines Too Rigid, Critics Warn

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