Initiative raises bar for English learners

By Shannon Smith

English is the second language for more than five million children in the United States – and the numbers are continuing to grow, according to the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), which is part of the Department of Education.

The government is addressing the increase of these English-as-a-second-language students (ESL), also known as English-language learners, through the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

According to the act, English-language learners in grades K-12 should be tested annually on their English proficiency. Schools are required to test English-language learners in oral language, reading and writing.

However, some local educators are frustrated with the intense criteria teachers and students are being forced to uphold.

Jennifer Hixson, multi-cultural program director for Urbana District 116, is one of those instructors.

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    “Kindergarteners and first graders who are ESL students have to take a reading and writing test in English, even though we don’t test kindergarteners and first-grade students who are primarily English-speaking,” she said. “It is absolutely ridiculous.”

    These standards are especially strenuous for states such as California, which enrolls about 30 percent of the nation’s English-language learners.

    English-proficiency tests were supposed to be in place by the 2002-2003 school year, but it hasn’t happened in all states yet, according to a Nov. 17 article published on

    Standardized testing is required for every child in every state by the third grade. Sherry E. Alimi, principal of Booker T. Washington School in Champaign, said even these tests can be extremely difficult for English-language learners.

    English-language learners take the Illinois Measurement of Annual Growth in English (IMAGE) test while monolingual English-speaking students take the Illinois State Achievement Test (ISAT). Both tests focus on math, reading and writing skills, Alimi said.

    “My only concern is that, originally, the IMAGE test was an individualized test,” Alimi said. “The first time the child took the test, it became their threshold. After that, their performance was matched against their baseline.”

    She said the test is now being used in the same way as the ISAT.

    “They perverted the use of the test to make it a measurement of how well the schools were doing,” Alimi said.

    Alimi added that having the IMAGE and the ISAT collectively counted for the schools could bring the schools’ overall scores down and possibly put them on a watch list.

    “Instead of comparing apples to apples, they’re comparing apples to oranges,” Alimi said.

    Alimi experienced a similar phenomenon while working for a school district in Schaumburg, Ill. The school scored 12th out of 22 schools in the district on the ISAT scores. However, the press ignored that when printing the list in community publications, which combined both ISAT and IMAGE scores. The school was then listed as dead last.

    “It’s very demoralizing to teachers. Instead of becoming heroes, they are beaten down and told they are major losers,” Alimi said. “When the teachers initially saw the scores, they were thrilled. When it came out in the newspaper, it was a horrible thing.”

    The NCLB includes a section devoted to the consequences of not making adequate yearly progress (AYP). If a school does not make a state-defined AYP for two consecutive school years, it is considered to “need improvement.” Schools needing this improvement are required to develop a two-year plan to turn around, and students are given the option to transfer.

    Two of Urbana’s elementary schools offer ESL programs. Leal Elementary School specializes in ESL classes and offers native language instruction for Spanish-speaking students. King Elementary has ESL classes for Chinese, Korean, French, Turkish, Arabic, Russian and Vietnamese students, Hixson said.

    “There are about 200 elementary ESL students in Urbana,” Hixson said. “These schools have so many ESL students because they are the schools equipped with the programs.”

    Champaign Unit 4 offers a school of choice program. Because Washington Elementary School offers ESL classes, many parents with English-language learners choose to go there. The school has nearly 80 English-language learners, most of which speak Spanish, Alimi said.

    The resources do not stop there. Both Champaign and Urbana school districts offer ESL programs at the middle school and high school levels as well.

    Jesus Yepez, school social worker at Edison Middle School in Champaign, said the school offers three levels of ESL classes, which depend on the student’s ability.

    The school also uses what Yepez loosely referred to as a “push-in” model. The bilingual teacher uses her classroom as study space. She also assists in the classroom with science, social studies and especially math, Yepez said.

    Yepez said that if he could change NCLB, he would want it to focus on the training of teachers and assistants who are involved in ESL.

    “More people should get interested in working with these populations of students,” Yepez said.