No Child Left Behind and the Assessment of English Language Learners

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has evolved and changed over its 50-year history. The law was reauthorized in 2001 as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and both "ESEA" and "NCLB" have been used in recent years conversations. (See our "What's in a name?" feature below for more information on its progression.)  There are a number of aspects of the law that have directly impacted English language learners (ELLs) for the past decade and a half.

ELL Impacts

ESEA & NCLB: What's in a name?

Note: No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is also referred to as The Elementary and Secondary Education Act. For more details about the law's evolution, see "What's in a name?"

As controversial as this law has been, one positive outcome is that ELL student achievement is included specifically in the law, and educational leaders are focusing their efforts on meeting the needs of students who are learning English as a second language. For families of ELLs, NCLB includes provisions for family involvement and communication in a language they understand, especially in regard to informing parents of the kind of ELL support their child will receive.

For teachers, the law means heightened accountability in their practice, and for many it translates into increased pressure to improve test scores. National unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers, have made public statements regarding their recommendations for building more equity and value in the NCLB law, and they continue to advocate for teachers and quality education for all.

Teachers may feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of helping ELLs achieve proficiency on required exams. I will share some general information about NCLB testing and some ideas for assisting ELL students, but since each state has some autonomy in how they implement the law, there may be differences according to the state you live in. I recommend you check with your state education department to see what the requirements are regarding ELL student testing in your state. Our ELL Resources by State section offers some information to help you get started.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does NCLB say about testing ELLs?

NCLB requires that ELLs in grades 3-8 take the same state academic content assessments as all other students in Reading/Language Arts, Math, and Science. For ELLs, NCLB allows for certain accommodations:

  • one-year testing exemption in Reading/English Language Arts for ELL students new to the country (less than 12 months)
  • the possibility of taking the required exams in their native language
  • the use of appropriate testing accommodations, such as small group administration of the test, extra time, dictionaries, and simplified instructions.

In addition to the required content exams, ELL students must also take an annual English Language Proficiency test to demonstrate English language development in reading, writing, listening, and speaking every year. States are required to have English Language Proficiency standards in place to guide instruction of language development.

What are English Language Proficiency levels?

Each state adopts their own English language standards and leveling system. Since 36 states use the WIDA English language standards and assessment system, I will use it as an example. The WIDA ACCESS assessment determines English language proficiency (ELP) levels in the four domains of listening, speaking, reading and writing, using a scale of 1 - 6. The ACCESS assessment provides test items in five areas – Social & Instructional language, language of Mathematics, language of Science, language of Language Arts and language of Social Studies.  Students grades K – 12 take the assessment and receive a proficiency level score for each domain on a scale of 1 – 6.  The levels are as follows:

1 = Entering

2 = Beginning

2 = Emerging

3 = Developing

4 = Expanding

The WIDA ACCESS assessment is transitioning into an online assessment.  This online version will allow students to interact with social and academic language and allow students an opportunity to provide a recorded speaking sample that can be evaluated.

Each state sets their own “cut off” or “reclassification” score for determining English language proficiency.  A common cut off score for an ELL student would be a 5 and he or she is considered proficient in English and no longer receives ELL services.

How can English Language Proficiency levels help teachers?

If a teacher is familiar with the English level of his/her students, lessons can be differentiated to meet developing language needs within content areas. WIDA has English Language Development Standards that describe examples of student language connected to the content standards. The Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) standards also provide very good guidance in this area. In addition, a TESOL standards book entitled "PreK-12 English Language Proficiency Standards," provides guidance with the standards divided by grade bands: K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12. Each section is broken into categories based on content and language level. For example, math standards for 3rd grade with a beginning-level English speaker recommend that the teacher focus on activities such as pointing to examples of math concepts and introducing basic math vocabulary. Each content area has examples to help guide teachers in their instruction of ELL students.

Since NCLB has not been reauthorized, many states have requested waivers from the requirements and submitted plans to the Department of Education outlining their own plans for accountability. While waivers have become increasingly popular to address NCLB issues, the laws governing instruction and assessment of ELLs have remained unchanged in most states.  A few states have gotten waivers to exclude ELL test scores from accountability for two years, but other than that most states continue to meet federal accountability measures for ELLs as outlined in NCLB.

How can teachers help ELL students prepare for tests when the students have limited English language skills?

Every teacher handles test preparation differently, especially when weighing the cost and benefit of time spent on test preparation vs. language development. However, there are some things that teachers can do (besides offering the accommodations listed above) to assist students in feeling more comfortable and performing their best on the test.

  1. Make sure the ELL students understand the format of the test and the different types of questions. These formats may include multiple choice, filling in the missing word, or a constructed response where they must show their work. On the Minnesota writing exam, students are given a test booklet with certain pages marked for their draft writing, and then they are supposed to write their "final" response on designated pages. If students do this incorrectly, they do not receive any points for the writing section. The department of education for each state probably has sample tests available either online or in packets that can be sent to your school. Teachers should familiarize themselves with the different testing requirements and different types of questions in order to introduce the format to students.
  2. Help ELL students recognize that it is okay to skip questions if they find them too difficult and return to them later if they have time. This is a simple strategy, but without this knowledge an ELL student may spend too much time on one question and lose valuable points on questions they could have answered more easily.
  3. Provide instructions or tests in the students' native language if they are available and allowed by the state, and if the native language truly is the student's stronger language. For example, if a student has never had math instruction in his or her native language, it may be easier to take the test in English, the language of instruction. The reverse is also true. If a student has studied a subject in the native language, it will be beneficial to take the test in that language, if it is available. Regardless of the language of instruction, students may benefit from listening to directions in their native language.
  4. Help more advanced ELL students understand the difference between literal and inferential questions. I have seen ELL students scour a reading passage desperately searching for a direct answer to an inference question. Use everyday examples to assist students with the idea of inference. For example, a teacher may respond to a student's question of, "Can we turn the heat down?" by saying, "Oh, I can infer that you think it is too hot in here because you want me to turn the heat down." She challenged the students to look for other ways that messages are inferred and to share them with the class.
  5. Ask students to give evidence for their answers in daily classroom discussions. This gets students into the habit of examining their own thinking and recognizing the need to link ideas to content. This is helpful on a test where they may need to explain why they chose a certain answer. It also can help them in checking their answers before turning in the test.

There are many articles, books and programs on how to help students achieve better on required tests. It is important to recognize that some of these will work well for ELL students, and some will not. Teachers need to know their individual students' language backgrounds and English levels to determine what is most appropriate.

How can teachers and administrators effectively talk to parents and students about the tests?

Again, this depends a lot on the ELL community your school serves. A refugee community in which most residents have had very few opportunities for formal schooling will have different needs than a second-generation bilingual community in which most residents have received a lot of their education in the U.S. The most important thing is not to assume that parents know what you are talking about when you discuss the tests. This is even true for many of my English-speaking friends who have children in the schools. The tests and government requirements change regularly, and the reporting of scores can be confusing.

If an explanation of the administration and scoring of the test is available in a parent's native language, it should be provided, but again, that doesn't mean the parent will definitely understand the explanation. Some languages do not have direct translations for vocabulary related to academic content areas, testing, and accountability. The test scores and the impact they can have on a child's education may not be clear to many parents. In addition to meeting parents at conferences and discussing student performance, it is helpful to have a parent meeting where testing requirements and scoring can be explained in the parents' native language and they have an opportunity to ask questions.

Assure parents that the teachers and administrators at your school are working hard to provide quality instruction for their child, and give specific examples of the kind of support that is available. It is also helpful to highlight the difference between social and academic language because many parents may have the impression that their child is very fluent in English so they won't understand why they didn't perform better on the test. Educators may want to provide parents with a list of academic content words and phrases that they can reinforce with their children while doing homework.

It can be difficult to have a school's success evaluated in part by student test scores, especially when many of the students live in poverty or are learning English. However, teachers have a unique opportunity to assist ELL students in accelerating their academic English and content knowledge, which will lead to dramatic improvement on tests and success in school. While it is difficult to see ELL students worry about taking tests in a language they don't understand and to see schools and districts receive poor ratings because they are responsible for educating large numbers of ELL students, I am glad that ELL students' academic needs are being recognized and their performance is being measured.

When everyone takes on the responsibility of educating students who are learning English as a second language, they are more likely to receive increased support and quality instruction. In this way, we will ensure that future generations have the knowledge and skills to succeed regardless of their language or economic background.

CAL: ELL Testing & Assessment Resources

CAL presents a number of projects and resources designed to encourage and foster higher levels of academic achievement among English language learners through its assessment projects.

Northwest Regional Comprehensive Center

The Northwest Regional Comprehensive Center provides training, technical assistance, and research to support states and school districts in the administration and implementation of Title III programs under the No Child Left Behind Act. Here you'll find direct links to materials NWREL has created for teachers, staff, and families; State guidance and regulations; and National clearinghouses for the most up-to-date, useful information to help you serve English Language Learners in your schools and communities.

Schools Moving Up: ELL Webcasts

Schools Moving Up has an archived collection of educational Webcasts and resource materials on topics such as formative assessment, closing the learning gap in California schools, and quality teaching for English-language learners.

TESOL: Pre-K-12 English Language Proficiency Standards

The new PreK-12 English Language Proficiency Standards, an augmentation of the WIDA English Language Proficiency Standards, provides extensive matrices elucidating sample performance indicators, organized by the five standards (targeting language in social/intercultural interactions, language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies) and grade-level cluster. This publication is available for purchase from TESOL.



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