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NCLB Outrages

No Child Left Behind: Misguided Approach to School Accountability for English Language Learners

Note: Four years ago, the National Association for Bilingual Education supported the passage of NCLB. Now the Executive Director offers a provocative critique. Only the opening is printed here. Go to the url below for the rest.

“It is crucial … to include all students in testing designed to hold teachers and administrators accountable for the education they are providing these students. However, testing students whose language skills are likely to significantly affect their test performance will yield inaccurate results. … The aggregate performance of language subgroups that are inappropriately tested can be seriously misunderstood, and decisions influenced by invalid test results can have a significant impact on their lives.”

– National Research Council (2000)

“There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”

– H. L. Mencken (1917)

Holding schools accountable for results is a goal with broad support among the American public, policymakers, and educators themselves. There is a growing recognition that our children deserve no less – especially children whose academic needs have often been ignored, leading to achievement gaps that no just society should tolerate. The consensus falls apart, however, when it comes to means: how to design accountability systems that yield fair, accurate, and useful information on which to base decisions about school improvement. What kinds of oversight will ensure that students are achieving to their full potential, yet avoid arbitrary, one-size-fits-all mandates that disrupt the educational process? In short, how can we ensure that the “solution” does not exacerbate the problem?

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is the latest attempt to resolve this question. The law’s aims are worthy. Unfortunately, its approach to school accountability is overly rigid, punitive, unscientific, and likely to do more harm than good for the students who are now being left behind. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of English language learners (ELLs).

In 2001, the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE) supported passage of this legislation. We hoped that its stress on high standards for all students, combined with enforceable requirements for meeting those standards, would lead schools to pay increased attention to the academic progress of ELLs. That has indeed occurred. But experience has also shown that NCLB is not bringing the kind of attention that would benefit these children.

To the contrary, the law does little to address the most formidable obstacles to their achievement: resource inequities, critical shortages of teachers trained to serve ELLs, inadequate instructional materials, substandard school facilities, and poorly designed instructional programs. Meanwhile, its emphasis on short-term test results – backed up by punitive sanctions for schools – is narrowing the curriculum, encouraging excessive amounts of test preparation, undercutting best practices based on scientific research, demoralizing dedicated educators, and pressuring schools to abandon programs that have proven successful for ELLs over the long term.

After just two years, NCLB is clearly failing to meet its goals. By setting arbitrary and unrealistic targets for student achievement, this accountability system cannot distinguish between schools that are neglecting ELLs and those that are making improvements. As achievement targets become increasingly stringent, virtually all schools serving ELLs are destined to be branded failures. The inevitable result will be to derail efforts toward genuine reform. Ultimately, a misguided accountability system means no accountability at all.

No Accountability Without Valid Assessments

Many of NCLB’s shortcomings for ELLs can be traced to its failure to consider what is unique about these children. Setting benchmarks for student achievement, testing the progress of students against these benchmarks, then punishing schools where students fail is a simple, straightforward approach to accountability. It is also plausible and easily understood by the public. Yet, for ELL students in particular, it is an inappropriate, unworkable, and inequitable approach.

To succeed in school, ELLs must master academic knowledge and skills at the same time they are acquiring a second language. This is not an easy task. Nor is it a simple matter to monitor their progress, because existing assessment tools are generally unable to separate language errors from academic errors (Hakuta, 2001). When measuring the progress of ELLs, little confidence can be placed in tests that assume a mastery of English skills and that were never designed with ELLs in mind. This principle holds true not only in reading/language arts assessments but in mathematics assessments as well (Hakuta and Beatty, 2000). English-language achievement tests may be valid and reliable1 for some ELLs, but not for others; the point is that no one can say with certainty. Research remains extremely limited on the level of English proficiency that students need to participate in the same assessments administered to native English speakers (August and Hakuta, 1997).
Nevertheless, under Title I regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Education, ELLs must be tested in mathematics from day one and in reading/language arts after just 10 months in American schools. This is an arbitrary determination, without scientific support. Until appropriate assessments are widely available, it will inevitably yield inaccurate data about the quality of ELL programs.

Sometimes accommodations are provided, such as translations of test questions into the native language or the use of simplified English, which tend to raise the scores of ELLs (Abedi, 2004). Nevertheless, the extent to which English-language tests with accommodations fully measure student learning remains to be determined, especially for students just beginning to acquire English.

To continue this article, go to the url below.

1 Validity refers to whether assessments actually test what they are designed to test (e.g., whether results are distorted by language barriers). Reliability concerns the accuracy and consistency of assessment outcomes (e.g., whether results vary because of unrepresentative sampling of the populations being tested).

— James Crawford
National Association for Bilingual Education


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