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The Trump administration has reignited a political debate over language and education by doing virtually nothing at all.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—Congress’ recent rewrite of No Child Left Behind, which was crafted under the Obama administration but is being rolled out now — urges states to test English learners in their native languages. While prominent blue states are already doing so, red states are refusing.
The White House, so far, is fine with that: The U.S. Department of Education has signed off on some states’ plans to avoid offering native-language assessments, signaling that the federal government has no intention of enforcing the strongly worded regulations written by the former administration.
There are legitimate and nuanced pedagogical disagreements over when and how and for how long schools should teach and test students in other languages when there is legal precedent directing educators to help children learn English as quickly as possible. But in the context of the administration’s provocative anti-immigration stances, the argument has become sharply political, to the chagrin of some education policy experts.
“That leaves you with less room to have a deeper conversation about what makes sense instructionally for kids,” said Gabriela Uro, director of English language learner policy and research for the Council of the Great City Schools.
Immigrant rights advocates argue the conservative position boils down to xenophobia.
“It’s fear of the other. It’s ideology,” said Patricia Gándara, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It is a belief system that we should have low immigration, that we should not have people come into the country who speak other languages. And it’s unfortunate.”
Experts in English acquisition argue that the new law could lead to major regressions for some of the country’s most vulnerable children. Changes are underway that could shrink the number of people at state education departments and school districts who have expertise in teaching English as a second language.
At the same time, the exam most states use to measure English learners’ language proficiency just got harder. As a result, states might compensate by lowering their other standards for determining when they can mainstream students.
“Dumbing down or reducing the exit criteria so it’s too low does a disservice to English learners,” said Bill Rivers, executive director of the Joint National Committee for Languages.
What the Law Says, and How States Are Interpreting It
ESSA requires states to “identify the languages other than English that are present to a significant extent” and “make every effort to develop” assessments in the languages necessary for accommodating their students.
The statutory language isn’t new; it was included in prior versions of the law, but federal regulations written to implement ESSA gave it more teeth. The new rules, which were developed under Obama and went into effect in early 2017, “require that each State take further steps to demonstrate that it is meeting its responsibility to provide assessments for English learners in the language that is most likely to assess an English learner’s knowledge and skills accurately and fairly (i.e., through providing assessments in the native language of English learner students).”
More succinctly, the rules state, “We strongly encourage States to provide native language assessments for English learners.”
ESSA also forced all states to submit plans to the federal government detailing how they’ll comply with the law, drawing more attention to which ones are providing native-language assessments, which aren’t, and why.
When states submitted their plans last spring and fall, some signaled they wouldn’t offer tests in native languages, providing a similar rationale: Their state legislatures — or, in the cases of constitutional amendments, voters — had adopted laws establishing English as the official or only language of those states. And, they contend, those laws prohibit them from teaching or testing students in other languages.
The argument is disingenuous in places where there are bilingual or dual-language programs, because those students are taught in English and another language.
Critics say those English-only laws apply to some government functions, but not to schooling. New America, a Washington, D.C.–based school policy think tank with funding from education-reform-minded foundations like that of Bill and Melinda Gates and the Walton family, explained it this way: “Several states are leaning on these official language laws to justify their negligence in this area — even when it puts separate state laws in direct tension with each other.”
Florida especially has taken heat for its plan, which the state submitted in September. About 9 percent of students who take state literacy exams there are English learners, according to the ESSA plan. Most of those students are Spanish speakers, but there are more than 200 languages represented in schools statewide.
When Florida published its draft plan, the state’s Department of Education included a separate waiver request arguing for flexibility from the native-language assessment requirement. But officials later rethought that approach, ultimately submitting a plan in which they simply explain why they reject some aspects of the law. Referring to tests in students’ native languages, the plan states, “Florida does not need such assessments.”
“They simply acted as if those waiver requests had been granted,” said Rosa Castro Feinberg, a retired professor from Florida International University and longtime advocate for immigrant children who has lobbied against the state’s plan.
Recently, more than a dozen civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, wrote a letter to DeVos asking her to throw out Florida’s blueprint.
One reason it has been relatively easy for states to circumnavigate the requirement: There’s no standard definition of what constitutes a language being “present to a significant extent.”
So far, the federal government has allowed states to make up their own definition. But when Florida attempted to avoid using one at all, the Trump administration pushed back — which is essentially the only enforcement the federal government has done thus far of ESSA’s provisions dealing with native-language assessments.
Florida’s plan states there is no threshold laid out in federal law or its own state codes. The federal education department provided late-December feedback informing Florida officials that they must must develop a definition — although that doesn’t mean the state will be forced to do anything with the information.
Tennessee, also refusing to offer native-language assessments, has the following, somewhat convoluted criteria for what constitutes a significant language: It must be one of the top five languages other than English most commonly spoken by English learners at home. Also, it must be present in at least 4 percent of the overall student population, 20 percent of the students in a single district, or 20 percent within a single grade level.
Only Spanish qualifies, accounting for 4.1 percent of all students. The next most-spoken language is Arabic, with 1 percent of students. There is no district or grade level in the state where 20 percent of students are English learners.
Alternatively, New York defines “significant” as a language spoken by 5 percent or more of English learners. Statewide, Spanish and Chinese qualify. But the state currently translates science and math assessments into those two languages, as well as Haitian Creole, and additionally provides the math tests in Korean and Russian. When written translations are not available in students’ native languages, they are offered oral ones.
The state wants to do more. “For a number of years, the Department has sought funding from the New York State legislature to expand translations of content-area assessments into additional languages,” according to the state’s ESSA plan. If education officials there get the funding, the state would eventually offer all exams in the top 10 languages spoken by students.
The threshold in California law is 15 percent of all students. In that state, 33.5 percent of K-12 students speak Spanish.
California provides math tests with Spanish translations of each question, as well as language glossaries for 10 languages. For both math and English exams, test directions are provided in 17 languages.
California had an English-only law on the books for two decades, but it was repealed in 2016. Lorén Trull, senior policy adviser for UnidosUS, an advocacy group for Latinos in the United States, pointed to California as an example that provides hope for similar changes in other states.
“There’s no indication that the U.S. Department of Education will push back on this,” Trull said, so advocates for native-language assessments will have to fight on the state level, working to repeal these laws as well as convince education officials to amend their ESSA plans.
“It can be done,” Trull said. “It will be done.”
The Case for Native-Language Assessments
Native-language assessments aren’t right for every student, but they’re critical for some, proponents argue.
For the most part, advocates for native-language assessments agree with some states’ arguments that students shouldn’t be tested in languages other than the ones their teachers are speaking in the classroom.
But there are exceptions. An important one is for recent arrivals, especially high-school-age students who have received formal education in another language.
Several advocates expressed concern about Florida’s policy in light of the migration of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans that began after Hurricane Maria devastated the Spanish-speaking U.S. territory.
Feinberg, the retired Florida professor who also once served on Miami-Dade County’s school board, stressed it would be impossible to know whether a newly arrived student’s test score was reflective of his understanding of the content or the English language.
“You can’t separate it out,” she said.
If teachers want to determine what students know, they must give tests in a language students understand, said Tamara Alsace, president of the New York State Association of Bilingual Education.
“Testing them in mathematics in English becomes a language test, not a math test,” Alspace said.
Another category of students who’ve been instructed in English: those in bilingual or dual-language programs. This is an area where proponents argue that English-only states are employing inconsistent policies. While officials in those places argue that students should be assessed in the same language in which they’re taught, children enrolled in bilingual programs there are being taught in two languages but tested only in English.
Then there are the pedagogical and cultural benefits of bilingual education and native-language assessment.
Advocates argue it’s good for English learners’ classmates to be exposed to other languages and cultures. Dual-language programs tend to be integrative forces in schools, bringing together students from a variety of ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds “with the full cooperation of the parents, as opposed to busing or magnet schools, which have a checkered history,” said Rivers, who leads a national umbrella organization that lobbies on behalf of language education groups.
Mari Corugedo is president of the Hispanic Educators LULAC Council in Miami; LULAC stands for the League of United Latin American Citizens. She said students who are strong in their native language will translate those literacy skills to a second language, so continuing to learn their first language will help them learn English eventually.
The Case Against
The argument on the other side is that if instruction is in English, tests should be, too. That’s especially applicable to young children who haven’t yet grasped their first language, Florida officials argued in the state’s ESSA plan.
“A large proportion of Florida’s ELLs enter the public school system in kindergarten. Because of this, although these children may be proficient based on their age in the spoken native language, they would not have had previous reading or writing instruction in their native language. For this reason, providing a written assessment in the native language would impede, rather than support, the students’ ability to demonstrate their knowledge,” the proposal states.
One of the most prominent voices against bilingual education in the United States is a multilingual Italian immigrant who once taught students in English and Spanish and later directed English learners in an urban school district.
Rosalie Porter helped pass English-only laws in Arizona, California, and Massachusetts. (The laws in California and Massachusetts have since been repealed.) She said her experiences as an educator, as well as her research on the subject, have convinced her that native-language services become a crutch for immigrant students.
“If we give these kids the basic tests in reading, writing, and math in Spanish, they will continue to rely on the Spanish. They will not make the effort to move ahead in English…It only holds them back,” Porter said.
It’s much more important for kids to learn English quickly, which she said is possible, more or less, within two years.
“I’m not a person who doesn’t like foreign languages or people from other countries. I am an advocate for immigrant children. I believe in the value of knowing more than one language,” Porter said. “But I also believe the number one priority for children entering our public schools without full knowledge of English…is to learn English very, very quickly so they can get into classrooms where they are included.”
Also arguing against native-language assessments is an education-reform foundation founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush that holds tremendous influence over education policy in that state and, to a lesser extent, nationally.
Christy Hovanetz, a former top education official in Florida and Minnesota who now studies policy for the Tallahassee-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, said ESSA’s overall goals are to promote college- and career-readiness.
“To attend an American college or university, you have to be proficient in English, so it doesn’t make sense to test them in their native languages,” Hovanetz said.
She also said that developing assessments that are valid and reliable in a variety of languages is “extraordinarily expensive.”
That’s the primary argument from Stephen Guschov, executive director of ProEnglish, a group leading the push for a federal law declaring English the country’s official language. That would save the United States billions in government-mandated translations and other services, he said. Porter is the chair of Guschov’s board.
He’s also lobbying on behalf of the RAISE Act, the Trump-supported proposal that would create a merit-based system for determining which immigrants are allowed to enter the United States. Applicants would get points if they know English. “So you’re kind of getting the crème de la crème of immigrants,” Guschov said.
Guschov said he doesn’t believe all immigrants who don’t know English should be barred. In his view, they would be welcome as long as they are willing to learn the language.
The Bigger Picture
Experts argue that the education of English learners is being threatened in a more profound way.
One concern is that ESSA may change how school districts decide when students are ready to be mainstreamed.
One of the changes in the new law was to shift the responsibility of educating English learners — both in the language and also in grade-level academic content — from the law’s Title III to Title I, which mainly focuses on ensuring poor and traditionally underserved students get the resources they need.
On paper, that’s only a bureaucratic change. But in effect, it has led some states and districts to consider combining their Title I and Title III offices, potentially eliminating staff who have expertise in educating English learners.
“Some folks have misconstrued this to think, ‘We don’t really need to have a Title III person. We can just have it happening in Title I,’” said Uro from the Council of the Great City Schools, a national group that represents 68 urban school districts.
“It is a concern that I’ve heard at every single level — at the local level, at state level, and even at the [U.S.] Department of Education,” Uro said.
Rivers said many districts now have Title III coordinators who give advice on policy changes and teacher hiring. “We’re concerned that ESSA will erode that,” he said.
At the same time, an English proficiency test used by most states recently raised the passing bar.
Thirty-seven states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Northern Mariana Islands participate in the WIDA consortium, which delivers an annual online exam for English learners that tests their speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills. In 2016–17, the test’s scoring scale was moved, resulting in lower passage rates. The assessment is often used as the primary, if not sole measure for determining whether students are ready to exit specialized programs for English learners, and the number of students in those programs govern schools’ staffing and budgetary decisions.
The question of whether English learners are ready to mainstream is a critical one. Promote students too quickly without the right supports, and they’ll fail in general population classrooms. Keep students in the specialized program too long, and they might spend too much time on English drills and not enough on academic content, especially advanced coursework.
The second scenario could also spell legal trouble. Under the Obama administration, federal civil rights officials went after school districts that failed to offer English learners access to grade-level coursework.
The combination of a harder placement test and the possibility of fewer experts at the state and district level to help make promotion decisions could worsen the quality of education for English learners overall, experts said.
“As [districts] have consolidated to try to save budgets — and the law makes it seem like it’s okay to do that — they may be cutting themselves off at the knees to have the right people in place to make these complex decisions,” Uro said.
Also, since the WIDA test is now more difficult, states or districts may decide students who pass it are automatically ready to graduate from English-learner status, even if the students don’t meet other performance measures that show they’re prepared.
Artificially lowering standards for placing English learners in regular classrooms, Rivers said, could “take us back to the ’90s, [when there was a] perception that we were turning kids into young adults who were illiterate in two languages and thus ghettoizing them.”
“I think that danger is there,” he said.
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