by Pam McCollum, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2001

Teresa López is a 17-year-old student from Mexico who arrived in Houston a few months ago. She is a sophomore at the city’s largest high school where she has one class period of English a day. During the remainder of the day, she sits through classes in the sophomore curriculum that are geared to assist English-speaking students pass the state accountability test required for graduation. While the rest of the students are discussing the titration process in chemistry, Teresa is given a list of vocabulary words to copy and define.

Teresa’s case is not an isolated one. She is considered at-risk of dropping out because she possesses three of the characteristics that classify a student as at-risk of failure. She is an immigrant student with limited English proficiency who lives in a high-poverty area. As a secondary-level recent-immigrant student, she must quickly learn English in order to master academic content. Additionally, because she lives in a state that requires a graduation test regardless of course grades, she must pass an exit test to receive a high school diploma.

According to the Improving America’s Schools Act (IASA), a student should be classified as at-risk of failure if he or she is a member of any of the following groups: children in high-poverty areas, children who are limited English proficient, migratory children, neglected or delinquent children, homeless children, immigrant children, American Indian children, children with disabilities, refugee children, and teen parents.

Where do students like Teresa fit in standards-based reform? The nation’s governors, in addition to policy-makers and education leaders, have demonstrated their support for standards-based reform and expressed their belief that all students will achieve at high levels. How this belief and support translates to different groups of non-mainstream children, however, has not been made clear.

Within the present educational climate, all students are expected to perform to challenging academic standards without having equal opportunities to learn. As J. Kozol and others point out, the poor academic performance of the nation’s children is strongly related to inequities in school financing that advantage the fortunate and seriously impede the success of others in less affluent districts (Kozol, 1991; Coons, 1970; Cárdenas, 1997).

This article briefly describes the tenuous position of secondary-level recent immigrant students who are English language learners (used hereafter instead of limited English proficient) within standards-based reform. It also presents an initial set of opportunity-to-learn standards that need to be in place in order for students to achieve challenging academic standards and successfully complete high school.

Recent Immigrant Students and Standards

In 1994, the IASA was passed, reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). The significance of the IASA was the establishment of its core principle that “disadvantaged children should achieve to the same challenging academic standards as their more fortunate peers.” The IASA legislation mandated changes in how education is delivered, including improved instruction and professional development to align with high standards, stronger accountability, and coordination of resources to improve education for all children.

The 1994 IASA legislation noted that in addition to national academic standards to be implemented by the states, voluntary opportunity-to-learn standards should be identified to ensure students access to the resources needed to meet academic standards.

The IASA legislation highlighted a number of conditions that are necessary for learning, including a safe school staffed by appropriately-licensed and certified staff who have appropriate, up-to-date materials and equipment and adequate release time for planning. Moreover, teachers are to have access to high-quality, in-depth staff development that encompasses the presentation, implementation, and refinement of innovations, teaching techniques and methodologies to improve their teaching skills and stay abreast of innovations.

In general, most secondary-level English language learners are seen as “beyond the purview” of a standards-based education system primarily due to their inability to understand and use English for learning. As a result, secondary-level English language learners are often given low-level, unchallenging material because they are considered unable to participate in class.

Support services to English language learners at the secondary level vary widely and may range from no special support within or outside the regular classroom, to the most frequently occurring offering of one period of English as a second language (ESL) instruction daily. Based on an average school year comprised of 185 days, recent immigrant high school students who have one hour of ESL per day would have the equivalent of only four months of full-time ESL instruction during four years of high school. For most, this approach does not provide sufficient opportunities to learn English, master academic content, and successfully pass an exit test in order to graduate.

In addition to insufficient support in mastering English for academic purposes, the current heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing is another barrier for high school English language learners. Nineteen states now require students to pass a high school exit exam in order to graduate. However, English language learners who do not receive special services through a newcomers center or other special program aimed at serving them appropriately, often sit through classes designed to help English-speaking students pass the exit test.

This is an extreme case of “assessment-driven instruction” where the test has become the curriculum. This “test-based” curriculum is taught and retaught in secondary schools to help students earn a passing score on the exit test. Tests may begin as early as the sophomore year of high school in order to provide students multiple opportunities to pass the test. This extreme narrowing of the curriculum may assist native English speaking students to master the content of the exit test, but it does little for English language learners who do not yet fully comprehend the language of instruction.

Reform initiatives across the country are focused on students performing to challenging standards, but opportunity-to-learn standards – which are voluntary – are generally ignored. If all students are to meet these high standards, schools must ensure students are provided the resources they need to learn.

The opportunity-to-learn standards in the 1994 IASA legislation must be addressed if recent-immigrant students, as well as students in other non-mainstream groups, are to be included in the standards movement. The following is an initial taxonomy of opportunities-to-learn standards for recent immigrant English language learners at the high school level.

Opportunity-to-learn standards fall into four categories: curriculum, policy, teacher and counselor preparation, and practice. The standards should include, at a minimum, the following.


An ESL program must enable students to use English as a medium for learning academic content.

In order for students to achieve academic standards, in addition to general communication skills, students must possess cognitive academic language proficiency (Cummins, 1984; Cummins, 1983). At this level, students are able to problem-solve in English and perform the types of cognitive activities required in content-area instruction.


Amendments to existing policy must be made to accommodate the learning needs of groups of recent-immigrant students.

Secondary students often are placed in classes that are appropriate for meeting graduation requirements but that are inappropriate given their English proficiency. Policies need to be more flexible to allow immigrant students to earn credit for graduation. For example, a requirement to take a specific number of ESL courses in a non-credit sequence may be a disadvantage for students who could skip a course if policy allowed. District policies should be examined and, if appropriate, revised to give immigrant students sufficient opportunities to learn and graduate.

Teacher and Counselor Preparation

Teachers must be skilled in teaching ESL.

ESL was once considered a specialty for a few who taught in metropolitan areas. But now, expertise in ESL is essential for teaching in most school systems. Teacher preparation institutions need to require ESL courses for all future teachers so that teachers know how to promote second language acquisition and literacy before they encounter their first teaching assignment.

Teachers and counselors must understand the background and culture of their students.

Future teachers also need to know how to instruct students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds. The unwitting violation of cultural norms can inhibit learning. Education ethnographies are an excellent resource for teachers to learn how education is provided in the students’ culture of origin and the role that parents play in their children’s education.

Teachers and counselors must understand the basic issues of educational linguistics.

Counselors often are the first people immigrant students meet after they register. In order for counselors to make appropriate decisions about students’ placement in programs of study and for teachers to best serve students, they must be grounded in a number of issues:

  • how second languages are acquired in natural settings and best learned in the classroom;
  • the relationship between language proficiency and academic achievement;
  • sources of cultural bias in classroom texts, materials, and tests; and
  • the relationship between first- and second-language literacy.

One study found that high school counselors of immigrant students who lacked appropriate background knowledge served as gatekeepers and underestimated students’ potential, which negatively affected students’ ability to complete school (Suárez-Orozco, 1989). Rarely did these counselors give students information about post-secondary schooling.

One way to ensure that immigrant students receive high-quality, consistent counseling is to have a bilingual counselor advise all recent-immigrant students and follow their progress instead of distributing them among various counselors.

Students are more likely to succeed when teachers and counselors have high expectations for them and when they are in courses that build on their past learning experiences. A counselor who can readily communicate with these students and who understands the dynamics that affect students’ success can greatly facilitate students’ mastery of academic standards. This relationship also can help improve communication with students’ families, because they may be able to interact more easily with a bilingual counselor.

School staff must be able to explain, in the students’ native language, what standards are, what is expected, and what goes on in a standards-based classroom.

Some secondary-level recent-immigrant students may not understand why they have to attend school, let alone meet standards. An immigrant student, for example, may not have attended school for several years prior to entering a U.S. high school because basic education in his or her native country was considered complete at a much earlier age. Another student may have left school to help support his or her family’s line of work. Many immigrant students also have difficulty understanding how US classrooms typically are structured. They may be accustomed to very traditional schools that require them to memorize and restate lecture material. These students need help understanding and adjusting to performance-based classrooms where they evaluate their own work or work on collaborative projects that receive group grades.

School staff must be able to communicate with families in their native language about academic standards.

The importance of parent involvement in facilitating students’ learning is a constant theme in the IASA legislation. Unfortunately, parent involvement is commonly taken from a deficit approach as evidenced by the types of topics frequently offered in parent outreach efforts (e.g., “How to Be a Better Parent”). In order for parents to support their children in a standards-based system, however, they need to understand academic standards and why they are important. In addition to explaining standards to parents in their native language, inviting parents into the classroom to observe will help them understand what is expected of their children. (For information on IDRA’s valuing approach to parent involvement, see RE-CONNECT, the parent involvement resource center that serves Texas, at


An in-take process must obtain an academic history of the child apart from school transcripts and test scores.

Students should be interviewed regarding their academic background and personal learning history. These interviews also can be used to begin building collaborative relationships between home and school. For example, an interview can be an opportunity to learn more about areas of specialized knowledge that family members possess or students’ recent work experience, which many secondary students have had in their country of origin.

Framing instruction around these areas can increase students’ motivation and opportunities for participation. As Moll et al. suggest, working-class families without high levels of education possess high-level knowledge associated with earning a living, which can be used as a springboard for instruction (1990). Inviting parents to demonstrate and speak about their skills in the classroom acknowledges their skills and gives them the opportunity to participate in their children’s learning.

Sufficient planning time during the school day must exist for teachers to collaborate with colleagues and support services.

Due to the departmentalized nature of high schools and the large number of students that teachers see daily, teachers need school time to collaborate with colleagues about students’ academic and social situations. Recent-immigrant students and their families require many services from a variety of sources, both inside and outside of the school. Students who lack food, clothes, social services, and medical services or whose families do not have electricity cannot be expected to achieve academic standards until these basic necessities are adequately met.

Relationships must exist with community-based agencies, businesses, and other organizations that give students opportunities to learn, graduate, and gain employment or pursue post-secondary study.

Community organizations have valuable resources to contribute to schools in terms of experience, personnel, and fresh ways of approaching education issues. In addition, they often have volunteers who are proficient in the languages spoken in the community and can provide connections to social services and work opportunities for students.

For the last 10 years, the reform movement has been occupied with two activities: (1) setting standards and (2) assessing progress toward them. These have been relatively easy tasks for schools and districts compared to what they must now address: providing all children with equal opportunities to learn identified standards.

The IASA reference to “all children” must be taken seriously. All children can perform to challenging standards if they are provided the necessary opportunities to learn. Opportunity-to-learn standards cannot be voluntary. Recent immigrant students and other groups of students have unique circumstances that must be addressed, in part by opportunity-to-learn standards. Leadership around this issue is essential for educational excellence for all to become a reality.


Cárdenas, J.A. Texas School Finance Reform: An IDRA Perspective (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).

Coons, J. Private Wealth and Public Education (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970).

Cummins, J. “Language Assessment and Academic Achievement,” Issues in Language Testing Research (Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House, 1983).

Cummins, J. Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy (San Diego, Calif.: College Hill Press, 1984).

Kozol, J. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York, New York: Crown Publishers, 1991).

McCollum, P. “Immigrant Students and Standards-based Reform: Examining Opportunities to Learn,” In Including At-Risk Students in Standards-based Reform: A Report on McREL’s Diversity Roundtable II (Aurora, Colorado: McREL, 2000).

Moll, L.C., and C. Velez-Ibanez, J. Greenberg, K. Whitmore, E. Savedra, J. Dworkin, R. Andrade. Community Knowledge and Classroom Practice: Combining Resources for Literacy Instruction, OBEMLA Contract No. 300.87-0131 (Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona, College of Education and Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, 1990).

Suárez-Orozco, M.M. Central American Refugees and US High Schools: A Psychosocial Study of Motivation and Achievement (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1989).

US Department of Education. “Educational Excellence for All Children Act of 1999: Fact Sheet,” Internet posting (1999)

Pam McCollum, Ph.D. is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at

[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]