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The New Demography of America's Schools

Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act

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Document date: September 30, 2005
Released online: September 30, 2005

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

This report was made possible by generous financial support from the Foundation for Child Development and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.


The demographics of U.S. elementary and secondary schools are changing rapidly as a result of record-high immigration. These demographic shifts are occurring alongside implementation of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, the landmark 2002 federal law that holds schools accountable for the academic performance of limited English speaking children and other groups that include many children of immigrants. This report explores how immigration is changing the profile of the nation's elementary and secondary student population during this era of reform.1

NCLB Could Improve the Education of Immigrants' Children

No Child Left Behind has the potential to improve the education of children of immigrants and limited English speaking children in several important ways. Most key provisions affecting limited English proficient (LEP) and immigrant students are set out in Title I and Title III of the Act.2 Title I requires schools to improve the performance of LEP students on assessments of reading and mathematics beginning in 3rd grade (U.S. Department of Education 2002). Many children of immigrants are limited English proficient. They also often fall into one or more of the NCLB Act's other protected classes, including "major racial and ethnic groups" (blacks, Hispanics, and Asians), low-income students, and students in special education programs.3

Title I also mandates that schools report assessment results for students in these protected classes, and that schools be held accountable for improvements in the performance of these students.4 Schools that do not sufficiently improve the performance of students in these groups over an extended period are subject to interventions, including allowing parents to send their children to another school and offering supplemental services such as after-school programs. Continued failure to meet performance targets will eventually lead to school restructuring and possibly even closure (U.S. Department of Education 2002).

Title III of the No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to measure and improve students' English proficiency, with states held accountable for improving English proficiency on an annual basis.5 The law provides support for states and school districts to create new assessments of English proficiency, as well as alternative assessments—in the form of native-language tests or accommodations on English-language tests—to help accurately measure LEP students' performance in reading and mathematics.

NCLB is likely to promote changes in curricula for LEP students—whether enrolled in dual language, bilingual, or English immersion programs—so these students can perform better on standardized content area assessments. Since LEP students will be required to learn the same content and pass the same assessments as other students, NCLB could better integrate and align LEP students' classroom instruction with instruction provided to others. And because NCLB holds schools accountable for LEP students' English proficiency, the law may alter language programs and produce an increased focus on rapid English acquisition. Further, every bilingual and ESL classroom, just like other classrooms, must have a highly qualified teacher, one who is credentialed and holds a degree or significant expertise in the subject areas he or she teaches (U.S. Department of Education 2004a).

NCLB may also produce more emphasis on enrolling LEP children in pre-kindergarten (PK) and other early education programs to better prepare them for classroom instruction and the national assessments. Research has shown that early education programs help narrow gaps in preparation for elementary school (Haskins and Rouse 2005; Takanishi 2004). By highlighting achievement gaps among major racial and ethnic groups and for LEP children, NCLB may lead to more investment in early education programs that serve these children, whether Head Start, school-based PK, or other child care programs with strong education components.

Finally, parents of LEP students and immigrant parents have the same rights as other parents under NCLB: to be informed of their child's progress on assessments, their school's progress on meeting standards, and their right to transfer their child to another school if the local school fails to sufficiently progress. Parents of LEP children must also be informed about the type of language instruction their children are receiving and that they have the right to refuse bilingual or ESL instruction for their children. NCLB requires schools to communicate with parents in the languages they speak "to the extent practicable" (U.S. Department of Education 2004b).

Notes from this section of the report

1. We define the elementary grades as pre-kindergarten to grade 5 and secondary grades as 6 to 12, following categories available in the U.S. Census.

2. Throughout this report we use "limited English proficient (LEP)" to refer to children who have difficulty speaking English. This term is synonymous with "English language learner," the term preferred by many school districts and advocates. Our definition is based on the census measure of proficiency: ability to speak English as reported by the survey respondent. States and school districts use different, usually more expansive definitions of LEP, based on tests that measure children's ability to understand, speak, read, and write English.

3. NCLB mandates that schools report performance separately for these groups of students. States are able to define the number of students necessary to constitute a group for reporting purposes, with more than half of states setting the number between 30 and 40 children in a given school or district. See Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck, "Implementing No Child Left Behind: A Look at the Playing Field" (Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators, http://www.aasa.org/NCLB/DEC_2003_Pres.ppt.)

4. A fuller discussion of NCLB provisions affecting children of immigrants and LEP students will be available in Julie Murray, Michael Fix, and Wendy Zimmermann, "New Directions for Newcomers: A Roadmap for No Child Left Behind and Limited English Proficient Students" (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, forthcoming).

5. The central purpose of Title III is "to help ensure that LEP children, including immigrant children and youth, attain English proficiency, develop a high level of academic attainment in English, and meet the same standards expected of all children" (U.S. Department of Education 2005).

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Education | Immigrants

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