“No Child Left Behind: Ensuring High Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students and Students with Disabilities”
submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce
July 12, 2006
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My name is Keith Buchanan, Coordinator in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), Office of Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia. I would like to thank the committee for this opportunity to discuss the impact of No Child Left Behind on the academic achievement of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students in our schools. Today, I would like to address three issues: the value of the new LEP subgroup for accountability, the assessment requirements, and changes in our instruction. Fairfax County, the twelfth largest school system in the U.S., has experienced a steady demographic shift, and today, one third of Fairfax households speak a language other than or in addition to English. We educated over 30,000 LEP students last school year, a highly diverse group speaking almost 100 different home languages from more than 70 different countries.
The accountability systems established by NCLB which require reporting by subgroups have had an overall positive impact on the education of Fairfax LEP students. Like the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case of the 1970’s, the reporting of test results of the LEP subgroup focuses on the unique education of students who are learning complex academic content while simultaneously acquiring English. With three years of LEP test data now available, teachers can review specific information on the performance of their LEP students and then make adjustments to their instructional approaches for the subsequent year. The good news is that in each successive year, reading and math scores for LEP students in Fairfax have improved. That sunny picture, however, is clouded by uncertainty, since Virginia’s numerical targets of the percentage of students passing the tests will increase every year.
Because schools fully understand that LEP subgroup scores are part of their AYP calculation, we have seen an increase in teachers’ accountability for their LEP students’ success. This commitment by teachers is crucial, since LEP students continue to learn English for a long period after they leave specialized ESOL classes. Commonly, Fairfax students remain in ESOL for about two to four years, yet the complex academic English needed to succeed on standardized tests takes at least 5 to ten years to acquire. Every Fairfax teacher, from kindergarten to high school Chemistry, works with LEP students, and because of NCLB, we feel that they now understand that they have an even greater stake in the students’ success.
NCLB has set ambitious goals for student achievement with specific timeframes. Our challenge, however, is the implicit expectation that all LEP students will learn English at the same rate. Those who have had substantial formal schooling in their home countries and languages will acquire English relatively rapidly, yet there are also thousands of other students who have had interrupted formal education. Wars in Africa, Central America, Afghanistan and Iraq have sent thousands of students to our classrooms with little or no prior schooling. I once taught a group of seven Afghan teens who were resettled after having been soldiers for pro-U.S. forces during several years of their adolescence. Their education had largely taken place on the battlefield, not in school, and we focused on basics such as using to learn scissors and handwriting. They had had little exposure to school, yet NCLB requirements would have treated them the same as any other students who had gone to school all their lives. After taking assessments in English, their scores would still be included in their school’s AYP calculation after just one year in Fairfax.
The challenges of providing fair, accurate and reliable reading and math assessments remain daunting. When our students take Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests, the obvious challenge is that those assessments are given in English. Depending on a student’s level of English proficiency, a word problem focusing on solving a quadratic equation is not a test of that student’s math knowledge at all – it’s a test of English comprehension, so the student’s math score is not reliable. We are concerned that the requirement that all students take the same reading and math tests and their scores be included in AYP calculations after just a year in school, regardless of their level of English, does not reflect what research has shown about appropriate assessment for LEP students.
NCLB has had a far-reaching impact on how and what we teach, as well. The legislation provided Virginia with the impetus to revise its English Language Proficiency Standards. And, at the national level, the ESL teachers’ association, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, TESOL, has just published new standards for English language learners in grades pre-kindergarten through 12. The TESOL standards not only demonstrate how to implement instruction in English, but they also focus on instruction for LEP students in math, science and social studies classes.
Finally, I want to emphasize the value of Title III funding for LEP students in Fairfax. For example, with Title III, we began a dozen Early Literacy programs to teach parents of LEP preschoolers to prepare their children for kindergarten literacy. Last year, using Title III funds, we offered a graduate-level course to help more than 200 math, science, social studies and English teachers differentiate their instruction for LEP students. And, as our LEP population continues to grow, it’s critical that federal funding keep pace with this fastest growing subgroup so we can maintain valuable instruction programs for LEP students.
I want to thank the committee for this opportunity to review the benefits of NCLB by describing Fairfax’s commitment to use the provisions of the law as we work to close the achievement gap.