October 12, 2007

Testimony to Assembly Standing Committee on Education

Source: NYSUT Division of Research and Educational Services

Testimony of Maria Neira, Vice President, New York State United Teachers to the Assembly Standing Committee on Education. October 12, 2007

Good morning. My name is Charles Santelli and I am representing NYSUT First Vice President Maria Neira. NYSUT represents 585,000 members, including teachers, school-related professionals, higher education faculty, other professionals in education and health care, and retirees. I am joined by Catalina Fortino from our New York City affiliate, the United Federation of Teachers who will address the challenges of educating English language learners in New York City.

On behalf of NYSUT, I wish to express our appreciation to Assemblywoman Nolan and the Assembly Standing Committee on Education for holding the second public hearing on the educational needs of English language learners (ELLs) and the state and federal policies affecting them. NYSUT wishes to also recognize the important action that the New York State Legislature has taken under the leadership of the Assembly Education Committee following last year's hearing. You listened to the recommendations and used the power of the Committee to move forward the education agenda for ELLs. We applaud the strong and clear message that you have communicated to the federal, state and local levels that the education of ELLs is a priority in New York State. Thank you for:

  • Adopting the 2006 Assembly resolution urging the U.S. Department of Education and the New York State Congressional Delegation to support the New York State Education Department's (SED) request to use alternative methods of assessing ELL students. Your resolution triggered a powerful letter to Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education, signed by members of the New York State Congressional Delegation, including both senators, calling for the fair and appropriate assessment of ELLs.
  • Adopting legislation establishing the Foundation Aid which increased funding for all students, and especially for enhancing the formula by including an additional weighting to support the education of ELLs; the weighting recognizes the additional cost associated with providing appropriate bilingual, English as a Second Language and dual language programs to our students.
  • Amending the Education Law requiring all school districts receiving Foundation Aid to develop comprehensive plans to meet the educational needs of English language learners.

Once again, it is time to communicate a strong message to the federal government. While NYSUT appreciates the efforts of Congress to tackle the many problems with NCLB, reauthorization requires time to work through the important details that will make the act a positive influence on education in New York State. Congress needs more time to hear the views of everyone affected by this important federal policy. We urge you to join us in asking Congress to slow down the reauthorization process and get it right.

Today, I would like to focus my remarks on four issues that continue to affect the quality of the education of English language learners. Specifically, I will address:

  1. The issues with New York State's testing and accountability policies for ELLs;
  2. The need for timely collection, management and dissemination of student information for ELLs;
  3. The need for greater school district programmatic and fiscal accountability to ensure quality programs for English language learners; and
  4. The need for changes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act as they affect ELLs.

Issues with NYS Testing and Accountability Policy for ELLs

Despite all of our efforts this past year, English language learners are still tested twice in English language development: the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test (NYSESLAT) measures their English language proficiency, and for those ELLs in the country for at least a year, the English language arts test measures their language and reading skills. The double testing has an inadvertent result in reducing instructional time. We recommend that more time be devoted to teaching and learning English and less time to testing.

As reported in NYSUT's testimony last year, prior to the 2006-07 school year districts were allowed to use the NYSESLAT to meet the reading academic requirements under Title I for ELL students who had attended school in the United States for less than three school years. The U.S. Department of Education rescinded its approval of the NYSESLAT for this purpose and the State Education Department decided to administer the current ELA test for newly arrived ELL students who have been enrolled in public schools for one year or more. New York State's ELA is not a valid reading/language arts assessment for ELLs. It is our understanding that the grades 3 - 8 ELA assessment instruments have been normed on native English speakers and, therefore, cannot be considered a valid and reliable assessment for all ELLs.

Nevertheless, starting with the 2006-2007 academic year, ELLs with as little as a year of education in English have had to endure the ELA test. Parents, teachers and schools continue to struggle with the implementation of this unfair policy and practice.

In 2006, 32,420 ELL students in New York State were tested in ELA for grades 3 - 8. In 2007 that number increased by 39,662 to a total of 72,082 ELL students. Of those tested in 2007, over eighty-three percent scored at a level one or level two. In other words, while the State Education Department indicated that ELLs did better than predicted, the bottom line is that the overall performance of ELLs on the ELA assessment dipped in each grade. According to SED data, only 16.2 percent of ELLs who participated in the ELA assessment scored at level 3 and 4. This was not a surprise to educators.

Now that we have the two sets of assessment data, the question becomes how do we use this information to inform instruction, and provide quality programs and adequate resources to meet the needs of our English language learners. Yes, we are double testing students as New York State has been told to do, but what does it mean for our students, and educators who serve them?

If we really want to know how well these newly arrived ELL youngsters read in English--and we should--we must test them with an appropriate and valid test of reading proficiency in English for learners of English as a second language. The NYSESLAT test should be revised to meet USDOE test specifications to accomplish this. Moreover, if we really want to know how well newly arrived ELL youngsters read -- and we should--we must test them with an appropriate and valid test of language arts and reading skills in their native language. New York State must develop an appropriate test to do this.

Timely Collection, Management and Dissemination of Student Information

The State Education Department must focus its resources on the timely collection, management and processing of data for ELLs. It is our understanding that in August 2007, a full three months after school budgets were adopted, approximately 100 school districts received a letter from SED advising that they had not met student performance targets for the last two consecutive years [2004-05 and 2005-06] and requiring them to submit an improvement plan addressing the factors which prevented the district from meeting the their targets by August 31, 2007. The districts had less than a month to complete the plan. School districts need timely student information to meet the accountability requirements and to make corrections and provide appropriate services to students and support for their teachers.

The members of NYSUT's English Language Learner Committee, a committee of ELL educators from around New York State, tell us there are basically three serious problems concerning the collection, processing, and dissemination of testing and other data for ELLs in New York State. Put simply,

  1. The performance data of English language learners is not released in a timely fashion.
  2. Appropriate programs and services for eligible students are identified late and often after the school budget has been approved, thus potentially limiting the resources of school districts to support these programs.
  3. Programs and services for eligible students start late, thus diminishing the amount of instructional time for English language acquisition.

Additional State funds should be provided to establish an efficient ELL data management system that ensures the timely collection, processing and distribution of data for English language learners so that school districts receive information needed to meet federal accountability requirements.

Programmatic Accountability Through Careful Monitoring of School District Comprehensive Plans for ELLs

As you know, the Foundation Aid formula includes the previously separate categorical aid for English language learners. While NYSUT supported this change in the formula, we continue to be concerned about how school districts will be held programmatically and fiscally accountable for ensuring quality programs for English language learners.

We were very pleased that the Legislature amended Section 3204 (2-a) of Education Law requiring all school districts to develop a comprehensive plan describing the programs and services to meet the needs of English language learners according to Part 154 of Commissioner's Regulations. NYSUT supports this legislative requirement because it prescribes uniform requirements for all school districts that educate ELLs. As a result of this requirement, some school districts are preparing such plans for the very first time.

According to Part 154 of the Regulations, school districts designated as Contract for Excellence districts and school districts applying for Title III funds are required to submit the plan to the SED for review and approval. However, this leaves over 400 school districts that are required to complete the plan, but are not subject to SED review or approval of their plan. Although the comprehensive plan must be on file in these districts and made available for review upon request by SED, we are concerned that this procedure will not ensure that SED will monitor school district compliance with Part 154 of the Regulations. The SED must ensure that schools have viable, educationally sound and adequately funded programs for ELLs by monitoring the districts' implementation of the comprehensive plan and the resources to support this plan.

Section 3204(2-a) of Education Law should be amended to require all school districts to submit a comprehensive plan to the Commissioner of Education for approval which shall be subsequently reviewed and approved by SED at least once every three years.

We are currently aware of SED's staffing shortages and its ability to fully monitor school district compliance with Part 154, including those provisions concerning the comprehensive plan. Additional State resources should be made available to increase the number of SED staff to review, approve and monitor the implementation of school district comprehensive plans.

Changes are needed to the federal No Child Left Behind Act affecting ELLs

NCLB was enacted with great promise of improved student achievement, enhanced accountability and increased funding. Now that we have had the experience of operating under the law for several years, it is time to make some important changes to improve the law. NYSUT and its national affiliates the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association are seeking changes to the following areas of the law: funding, adequate yearly progress, assessment of ELLs and students with disabilities and school improvement interventions. While these reforms are interconnected, I will focus my remarks only on our recommendation related to funding and English language learners.

Congress has not met its commitment to its federal investment in education consistent with the authorization levels for NCLB. As a result, New York's school districts are without $1.3 billion in promised funding. Congress must live up to its initial promise of full funding for NCLB. These funds are needed to provide all students with the necessary programs and supports to attain the State's learning standards and to ensure that states have the necessary resources to develop and administer fair, valid and reliable tests for our special populations, including English language learners. While Congress and the President did not provide the promised funding, they still are imposing sanctions and punishments to schools as though they had done so.

NCLB is flawed because it does not include a fair assessment option for English language learners and forces states to needlessly label students and the schools they are enrolled in as failing. The draft NCLB Miller/McKeon bill provides some positive recommendations for English language learners; however, we believe it does not go far enough.

  • We support the provisions of the draft proposal which requires states to develop valid and reliable assessments, including native language assessments, and the use of such assessment for up to five years, with the option of providing school districts additional time on a case-by-case basis. The proposal allows states an extended time to use its English language proficiency test for the purpose of determining AYP in reading and language arts skills, but limits the flexibility provision to just the two years following enactment of the new legislation. We believe there should be no sunset provision in the legislation.
  • NYSUT supports the use of NYSESLAT, the State's English language proficiency test for accountability purposes for English language learners with less than three years of instruction in English.
  • We support additional time for students to meet graduation standards with no penalty to the school district, especially for special populations including ELLs and students with disabilities. (SED data for the 2000 cohort shows that 43.5 percent of ELLs met their high school graduation requirements after five years.) We recommend school districts be provided an additional year for these special populations (a total of six years).
  • We support the proposal to develop a common methodology for identifying ELLs and immigrant children for purposes of making state allocations. However, Congress must ensure that such methodology is at least as rigorous as the New York State requirements, does not impact the availability of services students are currently receiving or affect school districts capacity to serve these students.

NCLB is a powerful law and continues to hold promise for helping to close the achievement gap between ELLs and their English-proficient peers. It is imperative that all key stakeholders work together to bring about the necessary changes to NCLB's accountability and assessment framework. The alternative is a school system with little accountability for student outcomes, and one that is poorly equipped to help a growing population of students to graduate with a high school diploma that prepares them for college and the workplace.

Summary

We urge your advocacy for the following recommendations concerning the education of ELLs in New York State:

  1. We recommend that Section 3204 (2-a) of Education Law be amended to require the Commissioner to approve all comprehensive plans and to subsequently review and approve such comprehensive plans at least once every three years. We also urge you to support additional State funding to increase SED staff to review, approve and monitor the comprehensive plans for ELLs.
  2. We urge the Legislature to require New York State to develop two test options for ELLs. This would include revising the NYSESLAT and developing a language and reading test in the top native languages spoken in the State, which meet all of the USDOE test specifications and can be used as a fair measure of language and reading skills for ELLs who have been in this country for less than three years and/or are in bilingual education programs.
  3. We urge the Legislature to provide additional State funds to establish an efficient ELL data management system that ensures the timely collection, processing and dissemination of data for ELLs. School districts must receive timely information needed to meet the federal accountability requirements, to help strengthen instruction related to improving student performance, to make program corrections, and to provide appropriate services to ELLs and support for their teachers.
  4. We urge the Legislature to ask Congress to fix the flaws of NCLB in a way that reflects the best thinking of what is good for our students, teachers, and schools and to slow down the reauthorization process to ensure Congress has the time to hear the views of everyone affected by this federal policy.

NYSUT believes that the state and district accountability systems not only must include ELLs, they must be implemented in a way that effectively closes the existing academic achievement gap for ELLs. The present system does not provide ELLs with equal access to academic success as their English proficient peers.

We recommend that more time be devoted to teaching and learning the core subjects and less time to testing! You don't keep testing constantly to see, if students are learning. You need well trained teachers, appropriate curriculum, sufficient resources and time for learning to occur. Only then, can you test fairly and hold school districts accountable.

Thank you.