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What NCLB says about ELL students

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) uses the term “limited English proficient” to describe individuals, aged three through twenty-one, who are enrolled or preparing to enroll in an elementary or secondary school and whose difficulties in speaking, reading, writing, or understanding English may affect their ability to participate fully in society and to succeed in school and on state assessments. These students, also referred to as English language learners, or ELLs, may include immigrants and migrants as well as U.S. born citizens whose language proficiency is affected by an environment in which a language other than English is spoken at home.

Under the general provisions of NCLB’s Title IX, Part A, Section 9101, any student identified as ELL must have a Home Language Survey that identifies the student as bilingual and a score showing limited proficiency in one or all of the four domains—listening, speaking, reading, writing. Here is a brief overview of the current state of proficiency testing and achievement testing for ELLs.

Proficiency testing

  • Title I and Title III require proficiency tests annually, K–12, beginning during the first year of enrollment in U.S. schools.
  • Under Title I, districts must test oral language, reading, and writing in English each year.
  • Title III defines proficiency as comprehension, speaking, listening, reading, writing skills.
  • Title III defines Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives that include annual testing in English language proficiency (ELP).
  • Students who exit the ELL subgroup are no longer required to take an ELP test, and they usually do not continue to receive language services.
  • Assessments of English language arts and reading cannot be used to measure students’ ELP, and vice versa. (In a recent case, the Department of Education ordered Virginia to stop using ELP tests to calculate AYP in reading for beginning ELLs.)
  • States have English-language proficiency standards and academic standards.
  • States’ proficiency standards must be linked to state academic standards.
  • Many states used new ELP assessments for the first time in Spring 2006.
  • Commonly used assessments include four off-the-shelf tests and two developed by Department of Education-funded consortia; some states use multiple tests.

Achievement testing

  • States, districts, and schools must report on the ELL subgroup for AYP purposes.
  • ELLs are tested in math starting with the first round of state exams after the student enters school.
  • ELLs are tested in reading that year or the following year.
  • ELLs may take state reading and language arts tests in their native language for the first three years (some may get a waiver for one to two additional years); NCLB does not set limits for math or science tests.
  • Scores for ELLs who have exited the subgroup may continue to be counted with ELL scores for two years.
  • The most common way states include ELLs in large-scale testing is through regular state tests with accommodations. At least eight states will continue providing tests for some grades or subjects in Spanish.
  • In the summer of 2006, in eighteen states, the Department of Education questioned whether the alternative math and reading tests used for ELLs was comparable to the regular test used for AYP purposes. Subsequently, some states (e.g., Indiana) have dropped alternative tests and switched to regular tests with accommodations; other states (e.g., Oregon) have started comparability studies.

Recent Developments

  • The LEP Partnership is an ED initiative to help states make content assessments more accessible and appropriate for ELLs (July 2006).
  • A Title I regulation announced in September of 2006 relates to ELLs who have attended U.S. schools for twelve months or less. According to this regulation:
    • States can exempt ELLs from one administration of the reading/language arts test.
    • States must include ELLs in math testing (and in science, beginning in 2007–2008).
    • States are not required to count these reading/math/science scores in AYP determinations.
  • States can include “former ELL” students in subgroup for two years in AYP reporting.
  • In October 2006, the Department of Education gave $1.8 million to the World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment Consortium. This consortium of fourteen states and the District of Columbia is developing an alternative [plain-English] test for ELLs, to be implemented in 2010.



This summary is based on a review conducted for the Center for Public Education by researchers at Edvantia, an education research and development not-for-profit corporation founded in 1966.  For more information, see Research Review: What research says about preparing English language learners for academic success.

Posted: October 30, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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