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May 1, 1994
Vol. 51
No. 8

When Meeting “Common” Standards Is Uncommonly Difficult

Because limited-English-proficient learners bear an exceptionally heavy cognitive and linguistic load, they need stepped-up assistance to help them meet new content standards.

Visionaries foresee a restructured educational system in the United States that will hold all students to high common standards of world-class achievement. According to this vision, the standards will not only result in better teaching and learning, but will also guarantee that schools are accountable for the success of all students. American schools will achieve both equity and excellence.
These goals are laudable, and all citizens can rally behind them. We also need to think, however, about their implications for the more than 2.6 million children classified as limited-English-proficient (U. S. Department of Education 1992). If anything, this large number underestimates the number of people who are not fluent in English. More than 6.3 million children in the U. S. report speaking a non-English language at home (National Association of Bilingual Education 1993).
The size of the limited-English-proficient (LEP) population is important because meeting the content standards developed for areas like mathematics, social studies, and so on will be disproportionately difficult for LEP students. They will have to perform at much higher cognitive and linguistic levels than their monolingual English-speaking peers.

The St. Petersburg Problem

To illustrate the dynamics of the difficulty for LEP students, imagine that you are a student working with a group of peers on a science project dealing with the effects of photosynthesis. You have undertaken several experiments with plants. The process requires you to plant, measure, discuss, evaluate results, and prepare a report.
Now imagine that you're doing this project on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. That's St. Petersburg, Russia. Other than you, all the members of your group are native speakers of Russian. You have had an introductory course in the language, but you are still limited-Russian-proficient.
Is the task that you must perform more difficult than it is for the Russian-speaking students? Of course it is. The proficient speakers of Russian are learning content with a language that for them is practically automatic. You, on the other hand, must decipher the many structures and functions of the language before any content will make sense. In order to contribute to the group, you must negotiate your way through a series of unfamiliar sociolinguistic and sociocultural acts. When you use Russian to talk about your experiments or write your part of the report, you must not only grasp the content, but struggle to make the language express what you know. In short, the proficient speakers of Russian can focus primarily on cognitive tasks, while you must focus on cognitive and linguistic tasks.
If, before you came to Russia, you studied photosynthesis in a science class taught in English, you and your classmates will be learning different sets of content and procedures. You already understand the concept of photosynthesis and the specialized vocabulary needed to talk about it, so what you need to learn is how to express this knowledge in Russian. Thus, you must focus on language skills while the rest of the class concentrates on science.
If you've never studied the concept of photosynthesis, your cognitive and linguistic burden will be much heavier because you will have to gain access to new scientific concepts and vocabulary through a language that you do not understand, speak, read, or write well. In effect, you must meet a higher standard of performance.

Other Problems for LEP Students

The St. Petersburg problem conveys some, but not all, of the linguistic challenges that many limited-English-proficient students face in meeting standards developed for monolingual English-speaking students. For instance, some LEP students who enter American schools are academically delayed in their first language. They must then try to learn even more advanced content in a new language.
Another complication stems from the fact that LEP students enter this country at various points in their academic careers (kindergarten, 4th grade, 11th grade, and so on). The higher the grade level, the more limited-English-proficiency is likely to weigh on students because at higher levels of schooling, the cognitive and linguistic loads are heavier.
A third factor compounding the burden for LEP students is that they enter the United States from many places. In the different countries of origin, curricular sequences, content objectives, and instructional methodologies may differ dramatically from American practices. Students from China, for example, may use different rules and formulas to work algebra problems, and they often ignore the complicated conceptual approaches to problem solving that are common in American classes (Tsang 1987). Newcomers from China may thus be at a great disadvantage in a class that emphasizes higher-order thinking, and what they actually know and are able to do may not show up in assessments that are based on our content standards.

LEP Students and Content Standards

Let's face facts. Learning about photosynthesis in a language that you speak almost automatically is a different proposition than learning about it in a language that you have yet to master. And being held accountable for knowing long division by 4th grade is hardly fair for test takers who recently arrived from a country where long division isn't presented until 5th grade.
I am not saying that LEP students shouldn't be held to high standards or taught to develop higher-order thinking skills. In fact, for far too long the expectations held for many LEP students have been unreasonably low.
If they are to achieve the content standards being developed, however, we must acknowledge that for LEP students, meeting content standards is a more complex and cognitively demanding task than it is for students who are proficient in English. We must also pay more attention to the fact that LEP students may know as much as monolingual English speakers, but not the same things (not the least of these accomplishments is being able to understand, speak, read, write, reason, and remember academic content in a language other than English).

Opportunity to Learn

We should all stop talking about lowering standards for LEP students. Then we would have plenty of time to discuss the support that these youngsters need in order to meet high standards.
While those of us who work with LEP students applaud education reformers and policymakers for seizing on the idea that all students can learn and reach high standards of achievement, we are troubled by a lack of systematic attention to opportunity-to-learn standards. From daily experience, we know that most LEP students do not get sufficient access to high-quality instruction and needed services.
  • access to a positive learning environment,
  • access to appropriate curriculum,
  • access to full delivery of services,
  • access to equitable assessment.
  1. Programmatic deficiencies. In 1992, the Department of Education reported data showing that almost one in four LEP students receives no specialized instruction to help smooth the transition to learning in English. Federally funded bilingual education programs serve only 11 percent of the likely candidates for such instruction, and even then, the assistance generally stops prematurely. It serves students for a maximum of three years, despite research findings indicating that LEP students take from five to seven years (or longer) to approach grade-level norms on English-language standardized achievement tests (Collier 1987, Cummins 1981).Even students who do receive specialized help are often shut off from curricular options. For example, Travers (1987) traced the low mathematics achievement of language-minority students to limited opportunities to learn mathematics. The limitations occur for two reasons: (1) discrepancies between the intended curriculum (the content material found in curriculum guides and textbooks) and the implemented curriculum (what the teacher actually teaches); and (2) the inappropriate placement of LEP students in remedial classes.More recently (in 1992), Minicucci and Olsen's report on 27 secondary school programs in California said that fewer than one-fourth of the schools offer full programs (that is, programs that offer all content subjects at all grade levels in classes designed to meet the needs of LEP students). The researchers found that more than half of the high schools and a third of the intermediate schools had major gaps in their offerings for LEP students. Some offered no content classes at all for LEP students. It will not surprise you to learn that in several of the schools “the dropout rate was sufficiently high among these students to make 11th and 12th grade content classes unnecessary.” One school even had a policy not to enroll new LEP students over age 16. Such students were referred to adult education programs.Even special instructional services and resources appear to neglect the LEP population. For instance, although LEP students are included in counts to generate Chapter One funding, the LEP students who might benefit from Chapter One services are often denied them (Strang and Carlson 1991). We have indications, too, that LEP students have scant access to technology. A report from the U. S. Congress's Office of Technology Assessment (cited in Cummins and Sayers 1991) shows that students from language minority backgrounds are much less likely to have the opportunity to use a computer for learning. Cummins and Sayers add that only a few commercially available software programs (1 percent) are appropriate for students learning English as a second language.
  2. Teacher preparation deficiencies. In 1992, only 37 states required any kind of certification or endorsement to teach English as a second language (Stewart 1993), and only 30 states required certification to teach in bilingual education programs (National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education 1993). In states that do require certification, significant numbers of ESL and bilingual teachers hold substandard certificates, in many cases because the teachers lack proper coursework (Cooperman 1986).Despite the fact that half of all American teachers teach a limited-English-proficient student at some time in their careers (O'Malley and Waggoner 1984), no state requires every certified teacher to have some training or coursework focusing on strategies for teaching second-language learners. Although a number of organizations (such as NCATE, the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education) have urged teacher training institutions to include training in multiculturalism, a 1991 study of 132 universities found more than half deficient in meeting the recommendation (Stewart 1993).
  3. Assessment. This issue is of great concern to educators and parents of LEP students. Standardized testing in particular has long been a source of heated debate because, on the basis of test scores, LEP children are often misassigned to lower curriculum tracks or special education (Council of Chief State School Officers 1990, LaCelle-Peterson and Rivera 1994).Although the current move toward performance assessment seems to offer a more promising method of diagnosing the needs and determining the capabilities of LEP students, it also raises serious new questions of reliability and validity. For example, we don't yet know if LEP students writing in English can be measured accurately with the same scoring rubrics used to judge the writing of monolingual English speakers. It may be that scoring rubrics developed specifically for LEP students would more accurately measure what these students know and are able to do (McKeon 1992).
In dealing with these three areas of concern, we must not be misled by occasional news reports that feature some newly arrived LEP student who has put forth phenomenal effort and graduated as class valedictorian. Such stories depict the exception, not the rule. They do not reflect the experience of the vast majority of LEP students.
Put yourself in the place of an average limited-English-proficient student. You attend a school that offers no ESL or bilingual instruction, has no teachers trained in ESL or bilingual education, places you in low-level or remedial classes, cuts you off from some content areas, and fails to provide Chapter One or other specialized services. How would you perform on challenging subject matter tests given in a language you don't understand? Would you be likely to meet or exceed national content standards?

Enhancing the Possibility of LEP Student Achievement

  1. School and district officials can systematically examine the academic program open to their limited-English-proficient students. Often, it is helpful to select three or four LEP students with different backgrounds, reviewing the type of course offerings available to fill the special needs of each. Do the courses offered provide support in learning English as second language? Do they provide challenging content teaching, either in the student's first language or by “sheltering” the content (that is, teaching academic content along with the language needed to learn it).
  2. Using the TESOL Access Standards as a guideline, school personnel can review their approach to educating limited-English-proficient students. The school environment can support LEP students' learning and value their linguistic and cultural diversity (approaches should add to, rather than replace, students' cultural repertoires).
  3. State and school district officials can make sure that ESL and bilingual educators are included on teams that develop curriculum frameworks. Often, ESL and bilingual educators use alternative instructional techniques (such as bilingual education or content-based ESL) to teach particular subjects (science, social studies, and so on). If these professionals help to develop curriculum frameworks, they can ensure that the instruction for LEP students is up-to-date, effective, and consistent with local standards.
  4. State and district officials can discuss alternative ways to judge the performance of limited-English-proficient students. Some students might show what they know through portfolios. Others, especially those in bilingual programs, might demonstrate achievement in a language other than English.
  5. State and district officials can support the development of standards for the discipline of English as a second language. (Although TESOL and the National Association for Bilingual Education are collaborating to develop ESL content standards, calls for federal support of this project have gone unanswered. The federal government has, however, supported standards development in other disciplines).
Professional teaching standards for ESL are needed to ensure that its instructors are highly skilled, and content standards are important because many LEP students receive ESL in place of regular language arts. In other words, ESL is not watered-down language arts, but a discipline-driven, specialized subject for the fastest growing population of students in the U. S. today. Without standards for ESL, we have no way of knowing how well or how fast these students are acquiring English, nor can we determine how well ESL instructional programs are meeting students' needs.
Taking these five extra steps in behalf of what is now a poorly served student population is essential. After all, common standards cannot be met by using common approaches for all students, nor can content standards be met if schools fail to provide certain students with common opportunities.

Collier, V. P. (1987). “Age and Rate of Acquisition of Second Language for Academic Purposes.” TESOL Quarterly 21, 4: 617–641.

Cooperman, S. (1986). A Study of the Certification Status of Bilingual and English as a Second Language Teachers in New Jersey. Trenton: New Jersey State Department of Education.

Council of Chief State School Officers (1990). School Success for Limited-English-Proficient Students: The Challenge and the State Response. Washington, D. C.: CCSSO.

Cummins, J. (1981). “The Role of Primary Language Development in Promoting Educational Success for Language Minority Students.” Schooling and Language Minority Students: A Theoretical Framework. Los Angeles: Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center.

Cummins, J., and D. Sayers. (1991). “Education 2001: Learning Networks and Educational Reform.” In Language Minority Students and Computers: Computers in the Schools 7, 1 and 2: 1–31. This special journal issue was edited by C. Faltis and R. A. DeVillar.

LaCelle-Peterson, M., and C. Rivera. (1994). “Is It Really Real for All Kids? A Framework for Equitable Assessment Policies for English Language Learners.” Harvard Educational Review 64, 1: 55–75.

McKeon, D. (1992). “Discussion of Liz Hamp-Lyons' Paper on Holistic Writing Assessment for Limited-English-Proficient Students.” In Proceedings of the Second National Research Symposium on Limited-English-Proficient Student Issues: Focus on Evaluation and Measurement. Vol. 2. Washington, D. C.: Department of Education, Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs.

Minicucci, C., and L. Olsen. (1992). Programs for Secondary Limited-English-Proficient Students: A California Study. Washington, D. C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

National Association of Bilingual Education. (1993). “Census Reports Sharp Increase in Number of Non-English Speaking Americans.” NABE NEWS 16, 6: 1, 25.

National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education. (1993). “State Profiles Database.” Washington, D. C.: NCBE.

O'Malley, J. M., and D. Waggoner. (June 1984). “Results of a U. S. Survey: Public School Teacher Preparation in the Teaching of ESL.” TESOL Newsletter 18, 3.

Stewart, D. (1993). Immigration and Education. The Crisis and Opportunities. New York: Lexington Books.

Strang, E. W., and E. Carlson. (1991). Providing Chapter 1 Services to Limited-English-Proficient Students. Washington, D. C.: Office of Planning and Policy.

Travers, K. (1987). “Opportunity to Learn Mathematics in Eighth Grade Classrooms in the United States: Findings from the Second International Mathematics Study.” In Linguistic and Cultural Influences on Learning Mathematics, edited by R. Cocking and J. P. Mestre. Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Tsang, S. L. (1987). “The Mathematics Achievement Characteristics of Asian-American Students.” In Linguistic and Cultural Influences on Learning Mathematics, edited by R. Cocking and J. Mestre. Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

U. S. Department of Education. (1992). The Condition of Bilingual Education: A Report to the Congress and the President. Washington, D. C.: USDOE.

Denise McKeon has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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