The Impact of No Child Left Behind on ELL Education

In this excerpt from Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice (Caslon, 2010), Wayne Wright offers an introduction to No Child Left Behind legislation for English language learners, including information on accountability, assessments, English language proficiency standards, and implications for ELL identification and instruction.

In addition, Wright summarizes the landmark Supreme Court Cases that have had significant implications for ELLs in Supreme Court Rulings Regarding English Language Learners.

No Child Left Behind

Federal policy for language-minority students learning English changed dramatically with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) (Public Law 107-110), President George W. Bush's plan for the reauthorization of the ESEA. The following table summarizes some of the major changes of NCLB:

Before No Child Left BehindAfter No Child Left Behind
Bilingual Education ActTitle III: Language Instruction for Limited English Proficient and Immigrant Students.
Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs (responsible for administering Title VII grants)Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient (LEP) Students
The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual EducationNational Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition and Language Instruction Educational Programs

LEP student issues are also featured prominently in changes to Title I, "Improving the Academic Achievement of the Economically Disadvantaged," which addresses issues of accountability and high-stakes testing.

Title III: Language instruction for LEP and immigrant students

Let us now take a closer look at mandates of NCLB for ELLs in Title III.

Grants & subgrants

Whereas grants under the former Title VII Bilingual Education Act were competitive, Title III provides formula grants to state education agencies. These agencies, in turn, make subgrants to eligible local education agencies (i.e., school districts and charter schools) that apply to the state for the funds. Under Title III, funding for LEP students nearly doubled, and for the first time federal funds for LEP students went to nearly all eligible schools. But because these federal funds are now spread more thinly, fewer dollars are available for each eligible LEP student.

Language instruction

Unlike recent versions of the Bilingual Education Act, Title III does not make any distinctions between bilingual and nonbilingual programs. The federal law now requires only that LEP students be placed in "language instruction education programs," defined as an instructional course:

  1. in which a limited English proficient child is placed for the purpose of developing and attaining English proficiency, while meeting challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards; and
  2. that may make instructional use of both English and a child's native language to enable the child to develop and attain English proficiency, and may include the participation of English proficient children if such course is designed to enable all participating children to become proficient in English and a second language. (NCLB §3301(8))

Thus, any program for LEP students must meet only two requirements:

  1. teach English, and
  2. teach academic content, as outlined in state English language proficiency (ELP) and academic standards.

Instruction in the native language is optional. This option, without referring to transitional bilingual education or dual language programs by name, nonetheless makes allowances for these types of programs. Title III gives the ultimate authority to each state to determine what programs it will and will not support.

State plans and laws

To receive Title III funds, school districts must submit plans to the state, which in turn must submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education. In these plans, school districts and their states must describe how they are "using a language instruction curriculum that is tied to scientifically based research on teaching LEP children and that has been demonstrated to be effective … in the manner the eligible entities determine to be the most effective" (NCLB §3301(b)(6)).

The law also stipulates that none of the requirements of Title III "shall be construed to negate or supersede State law" (NCLB §3126). As a result, in states with laws restricting bilingual education, schools cannot use the allowances for bilingual education in Title III to offer such programs unless they meet their state law's waiver requirements. At the same time, states that mandate bilingual programs may continue to provide those programs.

Discussion of bilingualism and additional factors

Also unlike Title VII, Title III includes no recognition of the personal and societal benefits of bilingual education and bilingualism. Nor is there any acknowledgment of the factors that have negatively impacted the education of LEP students, such as segregation, improper placement in special education, and underrepresentation of LEP students in gifted and talented education and shortages of bilingual teachers. Not addressed are issues of cultural differences or the need for multicultural understanding.

Focus on English proficiency

The sole focus of Title III is English. The list of purposes stresses repeatedly that Title III funds and programs are to "ensure that LEP students attain English proficiency, develop high levels of academic attainment in English, and meet the same challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet" and to assist state and local education agencies in creating "high quality instructional programs" that prepare LEP students to "enter all-English instruction settings" (NCLB §3102).

Another stated purpose of Title III is "to hold State educational agencies, local educational agencies, and schools accountable for increases in English proficiency and core academic content knowledge" of LEP students by requiring "demonstrated improvements in the English proficiency" and "adequate yearly progress" on state academic achievement tests (NCLB §3102(8)).

Earlier identification practices

Before the passage of NCLB, each state set its own policies on how to identify LEP students. In most states, at the time of initial school enrollment, schools would administer a home language survey to determine whether students come from a household with a "primary home language other than English" (PHLOTE). School districts were then required to assess PHLOTE students with an ELP test to identify LEP students. Decisions about which test to use among many on the market were frequently made at the district level. There is great variability among the tests and from one district to the next and one state to the next in assessments used and procedures followed to identify and report the number of LEP students. Even at the national level, attempts to measure the national LEP student population accurately prove problematic because of the lack of data and inconsistencies among data sets.

Standards and assessments

NCLB requires each state to develop ELP standards and ELP assessments designed to measure LEP students' progress in meeting those standards (NCLB §3102(8)). The standards and assessments must be based on "the four domains of speaking, reading, listening, and writing," and assessments must also include the domain of "comprehension" as exhibited through listening and reading (U.S. Department of Education, 2003a, p. 5). In addition, the standards established for each grade level must identify benchmarks for ELL students at different levels of English proficiency. Each state's ELP standards must have the following components (p. 8):

  • "A label for each level (e.g., Beginning, Intermediate, Advanced)"
  • "A brief narrative description that suggests the defining characteristics of the level"
  • "A description of what students can do in content at this level of English language proficiency"
  • "An assessment score that determines the attainment of the level"

Most of the language proficiency assessments that states and school districts were using when NCLB went into effect did not meet these requirements, and thus new statewide ELP standards and assessments had to be developed. Many states struggled to fully comply with the requirements by the deadlines.

English-Language Proficiency (ELP) standards

Just as other professional content-area organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the National Science Teachers Association, and the National Association for Music Education have created their own set of model content-area standards that states adopted or adapted, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) had created its own set of model standards in 1997. TESOL educators, however, recognized the need to substantially modify its original standards to meet the NCLB mandates, particularly the requirement for ELLs to meet the same academic content standards as native English speakers. TESOL's new ELP standards were completed in 2006 (TESOL, 2006a).

The result is the set of five standards, discussed in Chapter 2, that address the teaching of ESL and the teaching of the academic content-areas of language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies to ELLs. As required of each state by NCLB, the TESOL standards identify and label each level of ELP and list the defining characteristics of each level. TESOL identifies five levels of English language proficiency (levels 1-5) with the following labels: Starting, Emerging, Developing, Expanding, and Bridging. The description of each level appears in Table 3.1.

Table 3.1 TESOL ELP Standards: Levels of English Language Proficiency

Level 1
Students initially have limited or no understanding of English. They rarely use English for communication. They respond nonverbally to simple commands, statements, and questions. As their oral comprehension increases, they begin to imitate the verbalizations of others by using single words or simple phrases, and they begin to use English spontaneously. At the earliest stage, these learners construct meaning from text primarily through illustrations, graphs, maps, and tables.
Level 2
Students can understand phrases and short sentences. They can communicate limited information in simple everyday and routine situations by using memorized phrases, groups of words, and formulae. They can use selected simple structures correctly but still systematically produce basic errors. Students begin to use general academic vocabulary and familiar everyday expressions. Errors in writing are present that often hinder communication.
Level 3
Students understand more complex speech but still may require some repetition. They use English spontaneously but may have difficulty expressing all their thoughts due to a restricted vocabulary and a limited command of language structure. Students at this level speak in simple sentences, which are comprehensible and appropriate, but which are frequently marked by grammatical errors. Proficiency in reading may vary considerably. Students are most successful constructing meaning from texts for which they have background knowledge upon which to build.
Level 4
Students' language skills are adequate for most day-to-day communication needs. They communicate in English in new or unfamiliar settings but have occasional difficulty with complex structures and abstract academic concepts. Students at this level may read with considerable fluency and are able to locate and identify the specific facts within the text. However, they may not understand texts in which the concepts are presented in a decontextualized manner, the sentence structure is complex, or the vocabulary is abstract or has multiple meanings. They can read independently but may have occasional comprehension problems, especially when processing grade-level information.
Level 5
Students can express themselves fluently and spontaneously on a wide range of personal, general, academic, or social topics in a variety of contexts. They are poised to function in an environment with native speaking peers with minimal language support or guidance. Students have a good command of technical and academic vocabulary as well of idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms. They can produce clear, smoothly flowing, well-structured texts of differing lengths and degrees of linguistic complexity. Errors are minimal, difficult to spot, and generally corrected when they occur.

Source: TESOL, 2006a.

The TESOL ELP standards are further organized into five grade clusters: pre-K-K, 1-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Each of the proficiency standards is organized along the four traditional language domains — listening, speaking, reading and writing — lwith sample performance indicators. While TESOL's new ELP standards share many of the same problems as those for the content-area standards described later in this chapter, they can be of great benefit as a general guide to content-area teachers as well as traditional ESL teachers. In particular, these standards are useful in helping teachers to understand what can reasonably be expected of ELLs at various levels of English proficiency.

WIDA Consortium

The demands of NCLB for the creation of aligned ELP standards and assessments have been especially difficult for smaller and less populated states with relatively low numbers of ELL students. Nineteen* of these states — Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Maine, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin — as well as the District of Columbia — have formed the World-class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) consortium for the joint development of resources to comply with the demands of NCLB.

The WIDA consortium designed and implemented ELP standards and an accompanying language proficiency assessment, marketed as ACCESS for ELLs, which has been touted as a model for the rest of country. Indeed, TESOL's ELP standards build on the work of the WIDA consortium and are officially subtitled "An Augmentation of the WIDA English Language Proficiency Standards" (TESOL, 2006a). The WIDA consortium has also developed Spanish language arts standards and is developing alternate academic assessments for beginning ELLs that meet the mandates of NCLB. It is at the forefront of efforts to make the accountability demands of NCLB feasible for ELLs and is breaking new ground in the area of standards and testing for ELLs. The consortium's Web site,, provides detailed information on these efforts.

ELP assessments

According to NCLB, ELP assessments must be given annually to all LEP students enrolled in schools in every state. Local school districts receiving Title III funds are required to submit an evaluation of their programs for LEP students every 2 years to the state indicating each student's current status and progress in learning English, attaining proficiency in English, and passing the state's content-area tests.

Results of the ELP assessments are a part of each state's accountability system. Each state must establish baseline data and then set annual measurable achievement objectives (AMAOs) to hold school districts accountable for the progress of LEP students in attaining proficiency in English. School districts' adequate yearly progress (AYP) in achieving Title III AMAOs is determined by "annual increases in the number or percentage of children making progress in learning English" and "annual increases in the number or percentage of children attaining English proficiency by the end of each school year" (NCLB §3122(a)(3)). In addition, AMAOs under Title III includes LEP students meeting the AYP requirements under Title I. Title III outlines serious consequences for districts that fail to make AYP related to LEP student's progress and attainment of ELP. These consequences range from requiring districts to develop and follow an improvement plan to replacing district educators and cutting off Title III funding.

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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.


Wright, W. E. (2010). Foundations for Teaching English Language Learners: Research, Theory, Policy, and Practice. Excerpt from Chapter 3, "Language and Education Policy for ELLs." (pp. 59-63). © Caslon Publishing. Printed with permission, all rights reserved.


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Tamura, E. H. (1993). The English-only effort, the anti-Japanese campaign, and language acquisition in the education of Japanese Americans in Hawaii, 1914-1940. History of Education Quarterly, 33(1), 37-58.

TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages). (2006a). PreK-12 English language proficiency standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.

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U.S. Department of Education. (2003a). Non-regulatory guidance on the Title III State Formula Grant Program. Part II: Standards, assessments, and accountability. Washington, DC: Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students.

Wiley, T. G. (1998). The imposition of World War I era English-only policies and the fate of German in North America. In T. Ricento & B. Burnaby (Eds.), Language and politics in the United States and Canada: Myths and realities(pp. 211-241). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


*19 as of this publication. In January 2012, there are currently 27 member states, and 3 states have adopted the WIDA English Language Proficiency Standards but do not participate in other Consortium activities.


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My colleagues and I at Western Oregon University use this text for a Foundations of ESOL/Bilingual Education, and I appreciate Dr. Wright's thoroughness!

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