Education Policy and Our Perception of ELL Performance

English Language Learners at School: A Guide for Administrators

In this excerpt from English Language Learners at School: A Guide for Administrators, 2nd Edition (Caslon, 2012), Else Hamayan discusses three trends informing pedagogical decisions that she feels are counterproductive and potentially harmful for ELLs.

How Have Recent Policies Affected the Way We Perceive English Language Learners' Performance in School?

Many policies in education, beginning with the infamous No Child Left Behind, have adversely affected the way we perceive English language learners' (ELLs') performance in school. Interpreting how well ELLs do in school is usually influenced by the question: How long does it take for an ELL to become proficient in English? This question is itself embedded in a much larger and thornier issue: How long does it take any student to learn anything? When can we expect a student to attain academic concepts for a given grade level?

This issue has become critical, and three trends in education have led to pedagogical decisions and practices that are counterproductive to learning. None of these trends make developmental or humane sense for any student, but the implications are dire especially for ELLs.

  1. High-stakes tests are becoming the primary if not the sole method of determining success in meeting expectations.

    Worse, students who fail to meet standards measured by high-stakes tests are penalized, or they cause their schools to be penalized. ELLs, who are likely to perform poorly on standardized paper and pencil tests for a variety of reasons that do not reflect these students' ability to learn, fall into this category. This dependence on norm-referenced tests has become an accepted part of the educational system in the U.S., but it is not the norm in many other countries. In my experience as the parent of a young student in the public school system in Argentina, I see that teachers' own assessments and evaluations of their students are given as much importance as formal testing results.

  2. More and more is being expected of younger and younger children.

    Children are now expected to enter kindergarten with skills that were not expected of them in the recent past. The notion that five-year-olds need not do more than play and learn the rules of socialization has long disappeared in U.S. kindergartens and has been replaced by the absurd notion that the earlier children begin to master the basic elements of reading, such as phonics and letter recognition, the more likely they are to succeed in school (Ohanian, 2002). In educational systems of many other countries (see for example the article on Finland, Alvarez, 2004), formal instruction on literacy and abstract concepts does not begin until children have reached the age of seven or eight. In Argentina, play and recreation have a major role in the early grades, and teachers give themselves six years to develop literacy as a tool for learning. This push for younger children to do more is particularly problematical for ELLs because many of them enter kindergarten or first grade lacking some academic skills but bringing with them other skills such as socializing with others, negotiating, and turn-taking. When these nonacademic skills lose their value in the eyes of legislators and administrators, ELLs are at a disadvantage. In an atmosphere where kindergarten education has become heavily focused on teaching literacy and other academic skills, ELLs are likely to be seen as "at-risk." Unfortunately, this downward move of expecting younger children to do more has begun to influence even preschool education in the U.S., which is rapidly following the trend of more academics and less independent and imaginative play (Miller & Almon, 2009).

  3. Same-age children are expected to meet the same expectations at the same time.

    This trend has resulted in unjust consequences for all childrenwho happen to be a step or two behind their peers. Children who are simply late readers will appear as failures. Waiting a year or perhaps even two years for these late readers to meet the requirements would give them the benefit of being seen as successes rather than failures. Many ELLs, simply by virtue of coming to school with a language other than the language of instruction and from a cultural context that may be quite different from the culture of school, are nonstandard students. They will not fit into the rigid mold that has been created for "the average child" and will need the extra time that unfortunately the system rarely gives them. It may take some students as little as two or three years; it may take others as long as ten to learn enough English and to the level that their potential allows. To expect all students to attain the proficiency they need in either of the two extremes of the range (two or ten years) is foolish. To calculate an average, use it as a standard, and expect all students to have attained proficiency in five or six years is to act on the basis of a statistical illusion.

So, what needs to happen?

  • Become activists and advocate for a more sensible expectation of ELLs from kindergarten to high school at the school, district, state, and Federal levels.
  • Base your pedagogical decisions on sound research and experience and demand the same of your legislators and policy makers.
  • Collect classroom-based data to use as additional sources of information on students.
  • Document your students' stories and use them to advocate for an educational system that takes into account the individuality of ELLs.


Our policy section is made possible by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The statements and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


Hamayan, E. and Freeman Field, R. (2012). English Language Learners at School: A Guide for Administrators, 2nd Edition. Excerpt from Chapter 8, "Advocacy." (pp. 241-3). ©Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission, all rights reserved.


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