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Limited English Proficient Students: Increased Accountability Under NCLB

Authors: Laura Batt, Jimmy Kim, Gail Sunderman
Date Published: February 01, 2005

This policy brief provides information for practitioners and policymakers on how the NCLB requirements affect LEP students and their schools and explores some of the unintended consequences of the legislation. Although both Title I3 and Title III4 of NCLB apply to LEP students, this brief focuses on the accountability provisions outlined in Title I, which have generated the most controversy. The brief is divided into three sections. The first section summarizes the NCLB Title I accountability requirements that specifically affect LEP students. The next section answers commonly asked questions about the legislation and LEP students. A final section defines issues that need to be considered as the conversation about NCLB and LEP students continues.
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On January 8, 2002, President George Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) into law and thus initiated “the most sweeping change in [federal] education policy in three decades” (Malico & Langan, 2003). NCLB requires schools, districts, and states to collect an unprecedented amount of data on the achievement of public school students in the U.S., a move praised by some for encouraging accountability at all levels and higher standards for all students. However, the law has also faced resistance from many policymakers and practitioners who find several of its mandates unrealistic. Some have argued that the law’s requirement that all students in grades three through eight achieve proficiency in reading and mathematics by 2013- 2014 is unfair and in some cases impossible. For example, one group of students that might find it particularly difficult to achieve 100% proficiency at any point is the limited English proficient (LEP) subgroup.
The LEP subgroup deserves special attention for two reasons. First, LEP students comprise one of the fastest growing subgroups in the country. As shown in Figure 1, the LEP student enrollment in U.S. schools increased by 95% from 1991 to 2001 while the total school enrollment grew by only 12% (Padolsky, 2002). Five geographically diverse states experienced 40-80% increases in their LEP populations between 1991 and 2001. Moreover, some states such as Georgia experienced LEP population increases of more than 650% during the same time period.
Second, these students are at a disadvantage compared to students in other subgroups because by definition they are considered to have limited proficiency in English, the language of nearly all standardized tests. Some researchers have argued that standardized tests designed for English-speaking students tend to reflect LEP students’ language proficiency without accurately assessing their content knowledge (Menken, 2000). However, NCLB requires that LEP students’ standardized test scores be used for accountability purposes regardless of language or accuracy problems. For this reason, schools with large numbers of LEP students will likely face great difficulty in achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as it is currently defined under the law. 


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