UPDATED:  May 28, 2008 6:37 PM
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By: Amanda L. Andrei

With the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act expiring in 2007, lawmakers, educators, and advocates are gathering together to critically examine where and how to reform the nation’s education system. A new report released by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) reveals the status of Asian American students in public schools, particularly the detrimental impact of NCLB on the English Language Learner (ELL) community.

NCLB was passed in 2001 with the intent to close the achievement gap by regularly testing students in order to determine school quality. If the school did not meet certain standards, it would be shut down. As the report, Left in the Margins: Asian American Students and the No Child Left Behind Act, comments, “the ambitious law has serious flaws.” This includes its punitive measures of taking away resources from lower achieving schools, when those schools are the ones that need them the most. The law also expects students to achieve at “impossibly high standards” without taking into account the different groups of students, such as those separated by class or proficiency in English.

English Language Learners are the fastest growing group of students in the United States with a yearly growth rate of 10%, yet only 2.5% of teachers are professional equipped for their instruction. From statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Education’s survey of Limited English Proficient Students, Maryland shows almost a 70% increase in ELL enrollment since the 1994-1995 school year. Virginia alone shows almost a 200% increase in ELL enrollment since the 1995-1996 school year.

Left in the Margins points out that almost one out of four Asian American students belongs to the ELL category. Compared to the total population, Asian Americans are disproportionately represented in the ELL community, “account[ing] for over 10% of state ELL populations in 28 different states.” U.S. Census figures reveal that 18% of Maryland’s ELL population is comprised of APA students, while Virginia’s APA ELL population is 17%, and DC is almost 9%. The most frequent languages spoken these students are Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and Indian.

Brian Redondo, author of the report and Program Associate of the Educational Equity and Youth Rights Project, highlights one of the provisions that AALDEF found in a House reauthorization draft earlier last year. The stipulation suggests that if each state has 10% or more of its ELL population speaking the same native language, then the state should implement that native language assessment. “When we followed up with research,” Redondo explains, “all these Asian American groups would be marginalized by that provision, and they wouldn’t benefit at all.” The report cites a stark example of this condition: 16.8% of Maine’s 2,737 ELLs speak French and thus would receive language assessments, even though there are only 460 French-speaking ELL students. In contrast, more than 12,000 Vietnamese ELL students in Orange County, CA would not have native language assessments because they only constitute 2.5% of California’s total ELL population.

Instead, Left in the Margins proposes using “absolute numerical thresholds” as well as district or county population proportions instead of state or country cut offs. These methods of analysis disaggregate the student populations and help them where they are “most highly concentrated.” This would provide native language assessments to states with the largest numbers of ELLs, including California, New York, Texas, and Minnesota.

The report also makes suggestions for other changes for Asian American students. These include creating more bilingual education programs, addressing high pushout/dropout rates, and enabling parent involvement. With Asian Americans often viewed under the lens of the model minority myth, Left in the Margins draws attention to the difficulties faced by marginalized groups, particularly immigrants and English Language Learners. Although reauthorization of NCLB seems unlikely in 2008, the APA community is voicing their concerns to policymakers and advocates. “Asian American ELLs are a different type of community,” Redondo notes, “and they deserve more attention.”  

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