Written by Patricia Hawke for

Educators in Memphis Schools have strong opinions about the 2001 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act that will soon be up for renewal. So do most Americans. A recent Scripps Howard poll reported that two thirds of Americans want to have the act either rewritten or revoked completely. The poll found that those most familiar with the law were the most likely to be opposed to it.
The reasons for this are echoed in the halls of Memphis Schools. With the goal of setting higher standards of accountability for public schools NCLB issued a number of unfounded mandates that have challenged Memphis Schools. The most pressing is the requirement that all children will test at proficient levels on state exams by 2014.
This standard is especially difficult for Memphis Schools because of the large numbers of English Language Learners (ELL) that the district educates. Tennessee ELL students generally test between 40-50 percentage points behind white students in reading, and 20-30 point behind in math. While its not surprising that a child learning a new language will have more difficulties than a native speaker, the fact that these children are expected to take exams in English to be allowed to pass is very distressing to many of Memphis School’s educators. Language experts claim that it takes 5-7 years to gain proficiency in a new language. But for the ELL students in Memphis Schools who take these exams starting in 3rd grade, they don’t get that much time.
According to the 2006 Tennessee Report Card Memphis Schools were able to move a majority of ELL students to a proficient rating in both math and reading. While this is welcome news, it doesn’t remove concerns that ELL students still experience an achievement gap that outpaces that of other minorities in both the Memphis Schools and the nation. The Pew Hispanic Center of the Pew Charitable Trusts cites 3 reasons for the learning gap in both Memphis Schools and the nation. It claims that ELL students are likely to: attend low achieving inner-city schools, come from minority or disadvantaged families, and have experienced a “traumatizing migration.”
One reason that Memphis Schools have such a large ELL population is that the Catholic Resettlement Program brings many into the city each year. Tennessee’s urban districts, like Memphis Schools, currently have about 6,700 ELL students, and gain 500 more each year.
What can Memphis Schools do to bridge the gap and prepare students for the high stakes testing to come? Like the rest of the country Memphis Schools are implementing a number of initiatives to address class size, teacher shortages, lack of funding, and the achievement gap. Memphis Schools currently offer an English as a Second Language (ESL) Summer Intervention Program. Some Memphis Schools educators would like to see exemptions written into the NCLB law for ELL students and children with individual educational plans. But there are also those in the Memphis Schools who feel that the only way to truly raise standards is to set a bar that is desirable, but difficult. Essentially, it will be a decision made at the national level that will continue to have a dramatic impact on the Memphis Schools.