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Opinion: Righting the Ship for Students With Limited English Skills

Research Analyst

Fort Worth, Texas.

In 1974, Lau v. Nichols, set a new precedent in bilingual education when it required school districts to assist all students without regard to English language deficiencies.  All school programs conducted exclusively in English were deemed unconstitutional because they denied equal access to education to English learners.

Although the decision did not make bilingual education an absolute requirement, many schools were faced with additional challenges to meet the needs of non-English speaking students in some meaningful way.

Responsibility for serving LEP students continues to be relegated to the state, district and school level with the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).  Schools across the nation are now involved in a high-stakes competitive atmosphere of ensuring adequate yearly progress for all students.  The process includes the use of state-level assessments and increasingly higher standards for student achievement.  As a result, by 2014 all English language learners are required to pass state accountability assessments.

Adequate-yearly-progress requirements extend to all subgroups of students and test results are commonly disaggregated in other ways such as ethnicity, income level and special education.  However, federal requirements have increasingly challenged states and districts with large populations of Limited English Proficient (LEP) students.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2005-06, Texas reported nearly twice the number of LEP students (15.7 percent), as compared to the national average (8.7 percent).  In the past 10 years alone, the growth of LEP student enrollment has risen 50 percent in Texas, approaching 700,000 students (U.S. Department of Education, 2006).

            While variability exists in any subgroup, a number of issues make bilingual education distinctive. For example, many LEP students experience interrupted formal education due to high rates of migratory patterns within the subgroup.  As students arrive and depart schools frequently, significant gaps in formal schooling result.   While some LEP students have histories of formal education in their native countries, others may have had limited, if any, formal education (Mercuri, Freeman, & Freeman, 2002). 

Nationwide, LEP students often perform 20 to 30 points lower than other students on standardized tests, and typically show little improvement across time (Abedi & Dietel, 2004).  Furthermore, measurement accuracy for Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) is questionable, as LEP students often struggle with subject language utilized in tests that is unique to U.S. culture.

Despite the challenges that these issues present, school districts nationwide are faced with the task of improving the quality of instruction for LEP students.  While the number of LEP students has steadily increased nationwide, the number of teachers certified to teach bilingual education remains dramatically low (Maroney, 1998).  The low number of certified teachers for bilingual education has left many school districts scrambling to recruit more qualified educators.   

In the summer of 2008, U.S. federal judge William Justice determined that the Texas Education Agency, β€œβ€¦ has not met its obligation to remedy the language deficiencies of Texas students,”.  The ruling cited the dropout rate for LEP students who should have graduated in 2004 at over 16 per cent, which is more than 4 times the rate of other students.  As a result, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) will be required to overhaul the current system of teaching and monitoring the progress of LEP students by January 31, 2009. 

The ruling has been called a major victory for Texas school districts bordering Mexico, such as Rio Grande Valley Schools, which has a population of LEP students approaching 40 percent.  Texas has one of the largest growing populations of non-English speaking students enrolling in their schools everyday, so any assistance with meeting or re-structuring of accountability guidelines would be welcomed. 

While the victory seems to be one for the school districts, the verdict is still out for any real winner (e.g. LEP students).  New mandates for TEA typically mean new mandates for the school districts as the proverbial buck is passed down to the local level.  This is not to say that TEA should shoulder all the responsibility for mending all the fractures in the antiquated system.  And make no mistake; this system of accountability for LEP students is antiquated. While it is now commonplace to blame the much maligned  No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 for the ills of the U.S. school system, many of today’s  accountability measures for limited English proficient students has its roots firmly attached to Lau vs. Nichols in 1974. 

It is unlikely that educators sincerely devoted to increasing student achievement would argue that we should deny educational opportunities to some children. Nor would they feel that we should leave some children behind.  The real issue is not the persistence of moral ineptitude, but rather how to right the ship when the ship is too full of passengers and not enough qualified to guide them.  Looking at test scores does not provide prescriptive remedies.  The real issue is how to teach and simultaneously acculturate children.  The task is daunting; the challenge is escalating. 

Trey Asbury is in charge of program evaluation for the bilingual program in the Fort Worth, Texas, Independent School District. 

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