Dual Language Learners in Sen. Lamar Alexander’s No Child Left Behind Bill

It’s that time in the congressional calendar again! Welcome back to what my friend Anne Hyslop recently called this “edition of will we—won’t we rewrite [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act].” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) shared his draft reauthorization bill yesterday.

The current version of the law—No Child Left Behind (NCLB)—is the federal government’s largest primary and secondary education investment. It was due to be reauthorized in 2007, and for most of the seven intervening years it has been ground zero for some of the hottest (and least illuminating) debates over the direction of American public education. The United States’ disjointed chaotic ineffectual federalist approach to education governance means that most Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reforms have limited potency for changing the content and quality of most American classrooms.

Conservative education policy experts have joined reporters to stoke the fires of optimism about this particular round of bills. I’ve already written about why I think that ESEA’s not going anywhere in this Congress. You can read the whole column here, but the key dynamic is that conservatives bolstered by big wins in the fall midterms are unlikely to pass anything that President Obama is willing to sign. (Dropout Nation’s Rishawn Biddle has also written at length about this on multiple occasions.)

Big picture framing and political handicapping aside—what’s in the bill? This post focuses on Sen. Alexander’s proposed changes to Title III—the section covering “Language Instruction for Limited English Proficient and Immigrant Students.” (This post is part of New America’s just-launched Dual Language Learners National Work Group.) It makes considerably more changes than Alexander’s last effort.

Start with money. The Every Child Ready for College or Career Act maintains Title III funding at its current level—$737 million per year. This is $13 million less per year than NCLB authorized over a decade ago, even though there are at least 300,000 more DLLs in American schools today than when NCLB was written.

There are other substantive changes. Alexander’s bill would eliminate NCLB’s “annual measurable achievement objectives” (AMAOs) Currently, states set: objectives for DLLs’ progress learning English, objectives for the overall number or percentage of DLLs becoming proficient in English, and objectives for increases in the DLLs becoming proficient in math or reading. Districts that miss these targets face increasing levels of state involvement over time. (For an idea of how AMAOs work under NCLB, check out New York’s explanation here.)

I’m not sure if this is a big deal or not. It certainly fits the GOP’s broad aim of reducing the federal role in education in this round of reauthorization debates. The end of AMAOs means the end of the federal mandate that states respond to districts that are failing their DLLs. But it’s not clear whether that mandate had sufficient teeth to drive meaningful district-level improvements anyway. On the one hand, a 2012 federal report on Title III implementation reported that one-third Title III districts triggered AMAO-driven accountability by 2008-2009, and that “these districts served about one-half of the nation’s Title III–served [DLL] population.” Thing is, the same report chronicled a lack of clarity around states’ AMAOs and limited state capacity for making the accountability provisions meaningful.

In other words, the importance of eliminating Title III accountability is probably in the eye of the beholder. Here’s one version: it’s not clear that most states are equipped or inclined to hold districts’ feet to those proverbial fires—so why not give up trying to make them do it? Here’s another: for a rapidly-growing, oft-ignored subgroup like DLLs, a reduction in accountability coupled with flatline funding works out to increased inequity. That is, even if existing Title III accountability is flawed, it is preferable to leaving district oversight up to states. And, as Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman points out, there’s good reason to doubt that states will keep up their end of the bargain on accountability unless they’re forced to do so.

While Title III is the only ESEA section devoted to DLLs, any changes to the law are likely to affect these students. For purposes of space, I’m only going to pull out one relevant change of Alexander’s. The Beltway education policy world has been buzzing for some time about the possibility that the GOP would propose an end to ESEA’s “annual testing mandate.”

Under NCLB, students must be assessed in reading and math every grade from 3rd to 8th and one more time in high school. But Alexander’s ESEA leaves this question as yet undecided. In this draft, Alexander includes optional language to allow states to build different assessment systems and schedules.

Why does this matter for DLLs? These students demonstrate large achievement gaps in comparison with their non-DLL peers. We have much better data on these gaps because of the annual assessments NCLB requires. Without those assessments, DLLs that are falling behind on basic skills are much less likely to show up on schools’ radar screens. This is why annual assessments—which make it possible to measure academic growth in addition to academic proficiency—are so critical for underserved students. As I wrote in a post last week,

If a student is three years behind grade level reading in fourth grade, and makes two years of reading growth that year, she would score “not proficient” at the end of the year. Without annual assessments that illustrate her benchmark achievement each year, her dramatic academic growth is impossible to see.

In a speech on the Senate floor today, Alexander suggested that an open, bipartisan process would be the only way to get ESEA across the finish line. It pays to keep optimism tempered though, given that other recent Senate compromise bills with strong bipartisan support seem to be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House. But however the ESEA fight goes, New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group will have ongoing analysis of any proposed Title III changes.

Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams