Planning to fail

Students who don’t know English aren’t expected to achieve proficiency in some states, reports Education Week (requires registration). Under No Child Left Behind, states must submit plans showing how quickly they’ll move non-fluent students to proficiency.

Michigan’s plan seems to be among the most ambitious, promising to bring 95 percent of students who are now at the most basic level of learning English to full proficiency in four years.

Michigan defines proficiency as being able to earn a C or better in mainstream English classes without extra help.

On the other end of the spectrum is Minnesota, which divides its English-language learners into three groups, depending on how long they have been in special programs. For those who have studied English for less than three years, the state plans to move 2.5 percent to full proficiency this school year. The goal is only slightly higher for students who have studied from three to five years, or six or more years.

By 2013, Minnesota says, it will have raised the percentage of students who have been in programs for six or more years and who are deemed fully proficient from 3.8 percent to 12 percent.

California promises to move 30 percent of students with four-plus years in language programs to proficiency; the long-term goal is a 46 percent proficiency rate.

The feds aren’t getting tough on states just yet, since many are only just now developing tests of English language acquisition. (Why bother if you won’t be held accountable?) However, NCLB also requires schools to test students who’ve been in the country for three or more years in English. Non-fluent students are expected to show progress over time. That’s expected to force schools to teach more in English.

About Joanne


  1. So let me get this straight.

    Special Ed kids are supposed to demonstrate proficiency, but normal kids who haven’t yet learned English aren’t?

  2. Ken, that sounds about right. After all, forcing a individual to learn the language spoken by the vast majority would violate that person’s rights. I am not sure how but it must be the case. We should contact a lawyer to find out which one–Johnny Cochran might be able to help. Of course, failing to prepare the person to be able to function reasonably within the society is likely a cause to get sued over–and may violate the ADA somehow.

    “California promises to move 30 percent of students with four-plus years in language programs to proficiency; the long-term goal is a 46 percent proficiency rate. ”

    Does this mean that 30% of the students taking French, Spanish, Japanese, etc. for 4 years will be fully proficent in that language? Plus 30% of students that have English as a second language will also be proficient?

  3. This refers only to students who are classified as English Language Learners aka Limited English Proficient.

    The definition of “proficient” is the tricky part. The amount of English necessary to handle kindergarten is a lot less than what a student needs to function in middle and high school. I think the Michigan standard makes sense, but it’s not the one commonly used. Many schools insist that a ELL student test above the 35th percentile in English, confounding academic mastery with English mastery.

  4. Bill Leonard says:

    While I remain a perpetual critic of California’s public schools, it should be pointed out that there will always be a percentage of the population for whom any sort of English proficiency likely will remain just an optimistic target if that.

    For instance I know of teachers in the Alum Rock elementary district, in east San Jose, CA, who year-in, year-out have had to deal with kids who arrive in class one morning, and who already have attended two or three schools this year. And that’s not just one kid — it’s frequently six or more kids per year, every year, every class in the K-6 school. The sad part is, those kids are likely never going to learn English, nor are they ever likely to play more than a marginal role at the bottom economic rung on the ladder. But our tax dollars will pay for them when they’re ill, or have babies, or wait to get deported so they can come back again. And the teachers in these situations end up doing their best with what is really a hopeless situation — and a good many bail out as soon as they can. Can you blame them?

  5. The states’ guidelines for bringing students to proficiency need to take into consideration resaerch-supported language acquisition theory. Acquiring a second language doesn’t happen overnight. Nor does it happen at the same rate for all people. Students who arrive in the U.S. with zero proficiency in the ninth grade, will not be academically proficient for their grade level in time to graduate. It’s just not realistic. And yes, the definition of “proficient” will vary from state to state. Then, even within what is realistic, the resources are not available nor appropriate systems in place to facilitate the most rapic language acquisition for most students. So what are we gonna do?

    I will add. There is evidence both ways, but there is compelling research that indicates that properly-administered bilingual ed programs in the primary grades actually HELP the students’ progress in English. So don’t paint supporters of bilingual ed as anti-teach people English. Many of them (us) are sound educators making a plea for what they really believe is better for the students.