A Diminished Vision of Civil Rights
By James Crawford

At the core of today’s debates over school accountability lies a contentious question: Does the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2002) represent a historic advance for civil rights, or a giant step backward for the children it purports to help? This argument has divided the civil-rights community itself, along with its traditional allies in Congress. One side supports stern measures designed to force educators to pay attention to long-neglected students and enable all children to reach ‘proficiency’ in key subjects. The other side argues that NCLB’s tools of choice – high-stakes testing, unrealistic achievement targets, and punitive sanctions – have not only proved ineffective in holding schools accountable; they are pushing ‘left behind’ groups even further behind.

Disagreement is especially acute among advocates for English language learners (ELLs). These students pose a fundamental challenge for the NCLB accountability scheme, owing to the near-total absence of valid and reliable assessments of their academic achievement. Usually tested in English, a language they have yet to master, ELLs tend to perform poorly in both reading and mathematics. Indeed, the law defines them as students who have difficulty meeting state standards because of the language barrier. Nevertheless, under every state NCLB plan, ELLs’ scores on invalid tests must be included in ‘adequate yearly progress’ (AYP) calculations and, where they fall short of AYP targets, schools must undergo ‘corrective action.’

In other words, high-stakes decisions about the education of these students are being made on the basis of data generally acknowledged to be inaccurate. Schools with an ELL‘subgroup’ are being labeled and punished for failure – not because of the quality of instruction they provide, but because existing tests are unable to measure what ELLs have learned.

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