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The Flourishing of Dumb Ideas

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It’s been said that when it comes to good ideas in education, there are no Republican or Democratic ideas.

The same could be said for dumb ideas in education, including one born in the George W. Bush Administration and vigorously defended in the Barack Obama Administration.
The idea? That, after a year on our shores, a 17-year-old who came to America with no English skills should be able to answer questions about the nuances of Shakespearean sonnets, and pass a federally-mandated English exam.

In other words, students who are not yet proficient in English are expected to achieve “proficient” scores on English language tests under No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

And while the Obama Administration has offered waivers to states from some of NCLB’s requirements, they’ve been holding firm on this one. The U.S. Department of Education says that, for federal accountability purposes, states must count student results in each grade level after only one year in America.

Research demonstrating that students can achieve this is thin. In fact, some believe it’s non-existent. Dr. Billy Cannaday, a member of the Virginia State Board of Education and dean at the University of Virginia, was part of the negotiations with the federal government when NCLB first took effect a dozen years ago. “Based on practitioner experiences, we said one year was not enough to be proficient,” Cannaday remembers. “The federal government said it was long enough, so we asked for the data in the hopes we could learn from it.”
“The agency official looked straight at me and said: ‘We don’t have any data.’”

Indeed, in developing Virginia’s state accountability system, officials took a more rational approach: Students have eleven semesters before their reading their scores will count in school accreditation.

Under NCLB testing rules, students can be tested in their native language for three to five years, suggesting that the Department of Education understands that it really takes about five for an English Language Learner to become proficient. But if those same students take the test in English, it’s a one-year cut-off.

Why not provide the test in a student’s native language? For starters, the logistics and cost are prohibitive. The students of Virginia speak more than 214 different languages at home, which would mean 214 different assessments.

And “proficiency after one year” can have a damaging effect on schools with high numbers of English Language Learners. For example, 46 percent of Fairfax County’s Stuart High School students are classified as “Limited English Proficient,” as are 74 percent of the school system’s Bailey’s Elementary School. In Harrisonburg, one-third of Harrisonburg High School’s students are similarly classified as “Limited English Proficient.” These schools end up penalized if those students can’t read, comprehend and write English at grade level within a year.

The impact in Virginia is likely to grow. In the last decade, the number of students classified as “Limited English Proficient” has risen from 61,000 to 93,000 students. That number will rise even more rapidly this year, as 3,200 unaccompanied child refugees from south of the border join the ranks of those lacking English proficiency.

To be sure, the purpose of including non-English speakers among the test-takers was well-intentioned: to ensure that schools had an incentive to teach recent immigrants English so that they could thrive and assimilate into the economic and social fabric of America.

But the negative consequences now seem overwhelming. Schools that might otherwise escape federal sanctions find themselves unable to meet the standard solely because of the ELL cohort – in turn, building resentment within local school communities and undermining even the concept of standards, assessment and accountability. And for many ELL students, the educational and emotional consequences can put them even further behind in their learning and English acquisition.

Florida, where the impact is even more severe, finally rebelled this year. It’s legislature approved a law requiring testing after two years, instead of only one.

But the Obama Administration rejected the notion that state education law should dare trump federal mandates and has threatened to yank Florida’s NCLB waiver – as it did in Washington State when its legislature didn’t fall in line. And losing your NCLB waiver has consequences, too. NCLB requires that schools reach 100 percent proficiency – a statistically impossible task – so now nearly all of Washington’s parents receive letters saying their child attends a “failing” school.

Undaunted, Florida Governor Rick Scott is prepared to defend his state’s reform.

Let hope they do take the federal government to court, where the US Department of Education will be forced to defend a policy data doesn’t support against a reform just about everyone else would consider commonsense.

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