Paige Grants School Districts More Flexibility to Meet NCLB Requirements

Published April 1, 2004

Education Secretary Rod Paige on February 19 announced two new Department of Education policies regarding English learners, allowing greater flexibility to states and school districts in meeting the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act’s testing requirements. The new policies took effect immediately.

NCLB requires states and school districts to demonstrate academic progress across a range of specific subgroups within their student populations. English Learners comprise a separate subgroup under the law.

The difference between English Learners and the law’s other subgroups, however, is that while ethnic minorities do not transition from one group to another with time, English Learners are reclassified out of the group when their level of English fluency justifies the switch. This has led some educators to express concern that their schools would not receive credit under the law for bringing students up to fluency standards.

In response, the new policy allows schools flexibility to include such students in the English Learner subgroup, for NCLB accountability purposes only, for up to two years after their acquired fluency allows them to transition to a mainstream classification.

“This new policy ensures that states and school districts continue to get the assessment information they need to target their efforts and help all children get to grade level in reading and math,” said Paige.

The second policy concerns those English learners who are new to the United States and still in their first year attending U.S. schools. It allows states the option to give such students a waiver from taking standard English/language arts content assessments for one year.

NCLB already allows schools to test English learners with special accommodations–including translating the test into their non-English, native language–for up to three years. It also permits states to extend the practice for an additional two years on a case-by-case basis.

English learners and students with disabilities are the two populations whose treatment under NCLB seems to have attracted the greatest amount of discussion and concern in recent months. In December, the U.S. Department of Education announced a new rule giving states and school districts greater flexibility for students with disabilities under the law’s testing requirements.

The so-called One Percent Rule allowed the use of alternative tests to assess academic progress for approximately 10 percent of their special education population. It was intended for students with severe disabilities who cannot be expected to sit through regular standardized tests. Other students in special education may still be assessed with special testing accommodations.

Unlike the rule announced for special education students, the provision for English learners was considered a “transitional policy” for which no specific regulation had been released as this issue of School Reform News went to press. This is significant because the authors of NCLB were very specific about how they intended English learners to be considered for accountability purposes. The law states that they must meet “the same challenging state academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet, and are not receiving waivers for the reading and language arts assessments” (Section 3121c).

House Education Committee Chairman John Boehner said the new policy “will help to ensure good schools are not incorrectly identified by states as needing improvement, while continuing to ensure limited English proficient students are learning English and making academic gains.” According to Boehner, the new policy “provides flexibility to states and schools without denying these children the opportunity they deserve to learn English in our public schools.”

The federal Department of Education already has granted some states wide latitude with regard to NCLB compliance, especially where English learners are concerned. Illinois, for example, was granted a one-year extension until September 2004 because of “an unforeseen decline in financial resources.” As a result, the state was permitted to delay submitting standards for English learners or baseline data for English learners under the law’s accountability provisions.

Meanwhile, a new report released by Illinois State Senator Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago) offers a particularly discouraging portrait of the academic progress being made by Chicago’s Latino population. Del Valle, who serves as chair of the Senate’s Education Committee, released the report, “Dando un Paso: Latinos in the Chicago Public Schools,” in February.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Using a four-year cohort of students between the ages of 13 and 19, dropout rates for Latino youth in Chicago ranged from 39 to 43 percent.
  • Latino children in Chicago are under-represented in full-day kindergarten (33 percent) and over-represented in half-day kindergarten (57 percent).
  • More then one-third of Chicago’s bilingual education students leave the program without meeting the exit criteria.

Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley has been one of the most strident critics of No Child Left Behind. The state has been seen as a laggard in its compliance with other sections of the law as well. In December, School Reform News reported that only one of 10 eligible Chicago parents had applied for NCLB’s tutoring provisions.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. His email address is [email protected].