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The Positive & Negative Effects of NCLB on ESL Students

by Josh Hawthorne, studioD

For English as a Second Language students in the United States, the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act has had several positive and negative effects. One of the biggest challenges faced by ESL students is their academic performance on statewide standardized testing, commonly used to measure the adequate yearly progress of students, schools and school districts as required by the NCLB. Different states, different tests and different testing accommodations for ESL students create a complex, fragmented situation.

The Students

One positive impact the NCLB has had on ESL students is its requirement that schools across the country to attempt to provide quality education to meet ESL students' needs. The NCLB has also set professional standards for teacher qualifications that should benefit all students, not only English language learners. However, problems arise because ESL students are an extremely diverse segment of many school populations. ESL students vary in terms of languages spoken at home, English language proficiency levels, socioeconomic status and their needs as English language learners. All of these differences create challenges in terms of instruction, curriculum and assessment for each state, and each state is addressing these issues independently, with varying degrees of success.

The States

The NCLB requires students to reach certain levels of proficiency in math, science, reading and language arts at each grade level as measured by standardized tests. Unfortunately, no national definition of "proficiency" exists, so individual states are once again left to interpret the language of the NCLB independently. This results in "proficiency" being identified and measured differently state-by-state. If ESL students cannot understand what is being taught because of linguistic difficulties, they cannot perform to the best of their abilities on their standardized tests. The George Washington University Center for Equity and Excellence in Education has an excellent set of tools and resources for viewing each state's efforts to accommodate ESL students taking standardized testing.

Standardized Tests

As of the date of publication, the United States has no set national curriculum, with every state using a different battery of standardized tests. Because of this fragmentary approach to meeting the requirements of the NCLB, depending on where ESL students attend school in the US, they receive different levels of assistance and accommodation during mandatory statewide standardized testing. If ESL students are not able to demonstrate their knowledge because of difficulties understanding the language of a test, the test results will not be an accurate reflection of what the students know and can do. ESL teachers can best assist their students by ensuring that the standardized test reflects the curriculum by teaching their students test-taking strategies, by selecting appropriate accommodations and modifications and by using the data gathered from these tests carefully when making decisions based on students' "proficiency."


Fortunately, some provisions are allowed by the NCLB to accommodate ESL students. ESL students can have additional time to take the test or additional time for breaks during the test; the test can be administered in a small group or in an alternate location, such as an ESL teacher’s classroom, to ensure that students are in a familiar environment when they take the test; the test administrator can repeat or explain test items and directions; the test can be translated into the students’ native language and administered by a bilingual educator; and ESL students can respond to test items in their native language or dictate their responses directly to a test administrator. Many states have adopted some of these provisions, but at the time of this article being written, no state had adopted them all.

About the Author

Based in Victoria, BC, Canada, Josh Hawthorne has been writing curriculum and digital project guides since 1998. He holds a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Victoria. Hawthorne freely admits he loves reading zombie literature and is currently working on a book about error correction for students learning English (without zombies).

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