Educators and policy-makers answered the call to attend a two-day conference convened by Educational Testing Service and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) to assess progress in educating students who are not proficient in English when they enter American schools and to discuss research on potential solutions.
The hosts noted that English-language learners are the fastest-growing segment of the student population in U.S. public schools and that the No Child Left Behind law mandates that each state account for the instruction and performance of students learning English and demonstrate that progress is being made.
However, educators have been struggling to find the most effective ways to teach English skills and help immigrant students progress in their academic subjects. Many students who are not proficient in English fall behind in other subjects as well.
The conference “Addressing Achievement Gaps: The Language Acquisition and Education Achievement of English-Language Learners,” was held earlier this week. It attracted 320 participants, including teachers from throughout New Jersey, nearby states and elsewhere, as well as college administrators and other education officials from around the nation.
Dr. Michael Nettles, senior vice president of the policy evaluation and research center for ETS, said organizers were pleased that the conference attracted some of the “leading thinkers in our nation who have devoted many years of their lives to studying, writing and advocating” for students learning English. He noted that it was the eighth conference ETS has held on achievement gap issues.
Kurt Landgraf, president and CEO of ETS, told attendees that teaching English-language learners, ELL, students, “is extremely important, because the statistics are overwhelming.”
“We are no longer talking about dealing with a minority part of our population,” he said, but with a segment that is very quickly becoming a majority in schools and in the U.S. population.
He said that in the 2004-2005 school year, 5.1 million U.S. students in kindergarten through 12th grade, or one in every nine K-12 students, were trying to learn enough English to follow what was being taught in their classrooms. Those learning English represent 450 original languages, Landgraf said.
By the year 2025, he added, one in four students will come to school needing to learn English.
“We need to find ways to reach these populations that is not only socially conscious, but, frankly, in the best interest of the United States economically,” the ETS president said.
He added that while many people believe the immigrant language issue is an urban, inner-city phenomenon, non-English speakers are increasingly dispersing to many states and rural areas. Landgraf said states like Nebraska, North Carolina, Indiana and Alabama saw 300 percent increases of students whose mother tongue was not English.
“We extol the saga of immigration in this country,” he said. “At the same time, the political rhetoric has become nasty and foul and tinged with a self-centered approach” that has a political agenda driven by fear.
Delia Pompa, vice president of education for La Raza, said the No Child Left Behind act, now pending reauthorization, “is the civil rights legislation of today” for the children learning English.
“What we fight about today is not whether there are going to be services for English-language learners,” she said, “but about how we are going to include them in assessments, how we are going to include them in adequate yearly progress. I think that, despite the many complaints I hear in the field, is a very big step forward for us.”
She said the No Child Left Behind act “is why people who didn’t care about English-language learners before are very, very concerned about their achievement.”
She added that the country has a long way to go in addressing the issues. La Raza is a national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization.
Presenters discussed demographic trends in language education, achievement gaps in other subject areas for students learning English, early childhood learning of language, teacher preparation, special-needs students learning English and successful teaching methods among other topics.
Materials generated by the conference will be available on the ETS Web site, www.ets.org/achievementgap08.
–Angela P. Dodson
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