Behind the New Law

English-Language Learners Called at Risk

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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 18, 2003

One in a series of occasional articles on the people affected by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Emma Violand-Sanchez heads the English as a Second Language program in Arlington County, which serves nearly a quarter of the school system's students and is a source of pride among local educators.

The program stresses accountability and uses research-based curriculum and tests, just as President Bush desires, and that's why Violand-Sanchez is steaming mad about the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Provisions in the legislation, which took effect July 1, require expensive standardized tests not aligned with Arlington's ESL curriculum, and demand that students take the exams in English before Violand-Sanchez believes they are ready. Meanwhile, she said, the program is losing tens of thousands of dollars because the law changes the way federal money is distributed.

"We have worked very diligently for the past 20 years in improving our program," Violand-Sanchez said. "And after we have worked so hard to have a program institutionalized, now we have to rework it just to meet some federal requirements that are not going to improve the program at all. Not at all."

The changes she decries will soon affect the nearly 5 million students nationwide whose first language is not English, the fastest-growing student population in primary and secondary schools in the United States.

Federal education officials say the No Child Left Behind law will improve existing programs for what it calls English-language learners (ELL), many of whom have been virtually ignored by public schools in the past. "The intent is that children whose first language is not English are counted and that they achieve the same as we expect all children to achieve," said Maria Hernandez Ferrier, director of the office of English language acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education.

Some of the law's provisions say:

• All students in grades 3 through 8 must be tested annually, in English, in reading and math.

• Over the next several years, these standardized test results will be counted in increasing numbers in the determination of whether a school is labeled a success or failure under the law.

• Schools must assess all ELL students every year in English proficiency.

• States must establish annual achievement objectives for ELL students related to gains in English proficiency, measured by state content standards.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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