Language Policy

, Volume 7, Issue 3, pp 237–266

High-stakes math tests: How No Child Left Behind leaves newcomer English language learners behind

Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10993-008-9099-2

Cite this article as:
Wright, W.E. & Li, X. Lang Policy (2008) 7: 237. doi:10.1007/s10993-008-9099-2


The No Child Left Behind Act establishes federal education policy for the United States, with a heavy focus on accountability through high-stakes testing. Provisions specific to English language learners (ELLs) include the mandate for their inclusion in state math tests, even for newcomer students enrolled for less than one year. Most ELLs take their state math tests in English with few, if any, accommodations. This study provides an analysis of this policy through the case of fifth grade newcomer Cambodian students in a Texas middle school. A linguistic analysis reveals that the language demands of the state math test far exceeds the language demand of the math work the students were able to do in school (with assistance). A content analysis of the fourth grade math textbooks used in Cambodia and the Texas school district reveals the American textbook had a much higher degree of alignment with Texas math standards, and far exceeded the Cambodian textbook in terms of depth and breadth of mathematical concepts and math problems for students to practice newly learned concepts. We argue that these analyses provide strong evidence that the Cambodian newcomer students were not afforded an opportunity to learn grade-level content before the test, and that the language demands of the test are beyond reasonable for newcomer students. We conclude with a discussion of implications for needed changes to U.S. federal policy which account for the linguistic demands posed by math tests, and which provide students opportunities to learn expected math content before taking high-stakes tests.


High-stakes testing No Child Left Behind Language policy Opportunity to learn English language learners Math 

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.College of Education and Human Development, Bicultural-Bilingual StudiesUniversity of Texas, San AntonioSan AntonioUSA
  2. 2.College of Arts and Letters, Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian, and African LanguagesMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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