Like other children in the United States, refugee children attending school in the U.S. will be subject to the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was signed into law in 2002 and reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The legislation singled out several “protected groups”[1] of students for whom testing data is to be assessed separately, to ensure “continuous and substantial improvement.” These groups include:

  • Economically disadvantaged students
  • Students from major racial and ethnic groups
  • Students with disabilities, and
  • Students with limited English proficiency.[2]

In addition to limited English proficient (LEP) students being a group warranting special assessment, NCLB includes one whole section (Title III) devoted to “Language Instruction for Limited English Proficient and Immigrant Students.” Refugee students, at least in their initial years after arrival, are likely to fall under the LEP category, and many will also fall under one or more of the other protected categories. Thus, NCLB presents both opportunities and challenges for refugee families and educators.

It is still too early to assess the long-term impact of NCLB for refugees and other LEP students, but there are already champions, critics, and interested observers expressing opinions about both the “promise or peril”[3] of NCLB for LEP students. In this Spotlight, we will present information from various perspectives and resources for those working with refugee students.

Increased Diversity

Schools in the U.S. have experienced significant increases in diversity over the last several decades. The Urban Institute states that, between 1970 and 2000, immigrant students (including refugees) increased from 6 to 19 percent of the student population.[4] Not surprisingly, the number of LEP students in the U.S. school system has also increased. Nationally between 1991 and 2001, LEP student enrollment increased 95% while overall school enrollment increases were only 12%.[5] However, the Urban Institute also points out that not all immigrant children are LEP students (only 6% of school age children) and that there are more LEP students in lower grades since many such children learn English and move out of English acquisition programs as they progress in school.[6]

No Child Left Behind (NCLB)

NCLB created federal standards for regular assessment of reading, math and science skills, along with sanctions if schools do not meet required benchmarks. The first hurdle is to understand the legislation with respect to English language learners, and helpful resources have been created for both parents and educators, such as:

The Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education describes NCLB as offering ten key benefits to the parents of English language learners, including:

  • To have their child receive a quality education and be taught by a highly qualified teacher
  • To have their child learn English and other subjects such as reading-language arts and math at the same academic level as all other students
  • To know if their child has been identified and recommended for placement in an English language acquisition program, and to accept or refuse such placement
  • To choose a different English language acquisition program for their child
  • To transfer their child to another school if his or her school is identified as “in need of improvement”
  • To apply for supplemental services for their child, such as tutoring, if the child’s school is identified as “in need of improvement” for two years
  • To have their child tested annually to assess his or her progress in English language acquisition
  • To receive information regarding their child’s performance on academic tests
  • To have their child taught with programs that are scientifically proven to work
  • To have the opportunity for their child to reach his or her greatest academic potential [7]

In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has made available the following NCLB-related resources on its website:

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University has released a “Policy Brief” which presents the potential benefits of the NCLB for LEP students, while also noting critical issues and questions still to be addressed. The “Questions and Answers about NCLB and LEP Students” section of the report offers clear and helpful analysis of the law’s application to English language learners, including examples of native language and alternative assessments being offered to LEP students in some states so that the knowledge of LEP students is more accurately assessed.[8]

The Urban Institute has released several reports that recognize the potential progress envisioned by NCLB, while more skeptically assessing the probabilities.

Requirements of NCLB are intended to balance out and improve the educational opportunities for LEP and other students. While one educator expressed concern about the potential for a backlash against refugee and immigrant students, who may be perceived as lowering school testing scores, another educator noted that this may be an assumption that is ultimately not supported by the facts. The unintended possibility that NCLB could fuel antagonism towards refugee and immigrant students obliges educators to develop creative welcome and integration programs for refugee students, along with innovative language and cultural acquisition programs.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) provides a positive example of creating a welcoming environment for refugee students and approaching a diverse student-body as a learning opportunity for children, families and educators. The ISBE, working with the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Chicago Public Schools, funded two award-winning videos, Welcoming New Learners: A Professional Development Tool and In Our Country: Educating Newcomers in America, to help increase sensitivity towards refugee students and to help refugee students feel more at home in their new schools. A copy of the Illinois RCSIG Video Tool Kit is available free upon request to the English Language Learning Division of the Illinois State Board of Education (send an e-mail to Sherry Johnson at:

The videos and a companion handbook – along with a number of other very useful resources that are highlighted in BRYCS’ featured resource lists this month – are also available for free download from the ISBE website:

Several other useful resources, geared towards educators, address strategies for teaching newcomer students. National Council of La Raza, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and The Education Alliance at Brown University have produced the following reports:

The Regional Educational Laboratories (REL) is a network of ten regionally based centers focused on educational reform and improvement. Several of these centers have compiled resources related to serving diverse students.

The Education Commission of the States has also gathered numerous articles related to bilingual/ESL education, including.

In unfortunate situations where families feel that their child has been the victim of educational discrimination, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has equal access information and/or complaint forms available in sixteen languages other than English, including: Amharic, Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Hmong, Korean, Punjabi, Serbo-Croatian, Somali, Spanish, Swahili, Tagalog, Urdu, and Vietnamese.

The impact of NCLB on refugee and immigrant students should be, and doubtless will be, researched and studied in the years to come. While challenging for school educators and administrators, hopefully NCLB will ensure quality education for English language learners while also fostering recognition of what schools and communities can learn from the refugees and immigrants among us.

Other Technical Assistance Resources:

The Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, founded in 1979, is a nonprofit training and consulting corporation dedicated to demonstrating that national, cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences are assets that foster understanding and cooperation. The Institute has been designated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement as their technical assistance provider in the area of English Language Training (ELT). For more information on their services, see their ELT FACT SHEET.

Resources from the Spring Institute:

The Spring Institute has worked with Dr. Dina Birman of the University of Illinois, Chicago to produce materials that will be useful to classroom teachers who teach refugee children. Their latest publication is Refugee Children with Low Literacy Skills or Interrupted Education: Identifying Challenges and Strategies. Other publications include Mental Health of Refugee Children: A Guide for the ESL Teacher and Somali Youth Report, Excerpts from the Report Prepared for The Maryland Office for New Americans, Maryland Department of Human Resources. All three publications can also be ordered from The Spring Institute by phone: 303-863-0188, fax: 303-863-0178, or email:

Illinois RCSIG Resources 

The Illinois state School Aged Refugee and Immigrant Services has developed an impressive array of resources under RCSIG funding. Although these resources were developed specifically for Illinois, they are helpful to anyone serving refugee children and may also provide models for developing more locally-relevant resources. Following are highlights of resources available from the ISBE’s School Aged Refugee and Immigrant Services program:[9]

For Teachers and School Administrators:

The ESL & bilingual teachers’ toolkit was developed by the Illinois State Board of Education and the IRC with the Illinois educator in mind. Find teaching tips, information about methodology and assessment, recommended classroom materials, and much more in this searchable database of teaching resources. [description from]

Award-winning Videos (available in streaming video below or from the School Aged Refugee and Immigrant Services office)

Regarding Parents: 

Regarding Policy:

The Illinois Immigrant Policy Project has released several papers on the education of immigrants and refugees, including:

Illinois RCSIG Conferences
In addition to resource development, the Illinois Department of Human Services (specifically the State Refugee Coordinator’s office), ISBE, Chicago Public Schools, and the Adult Learning Resource Center have collaborated on holding annual conferences for the past two years. Just this past October, the 2005 Illinois RCSIG Conference, titled “Challenges and Opportunities in Educating Refugee Children”, offered thirty workshops providing cutting-edge training and resources aimed at improving the overall quality of education for refugee students

Illinois and Kentucky: Local School District Programming

Through RCSIG funding, the IDHS (Illinois Department of Human Services ) supports refugee social service agencies to help integrate refugee children into Illinois schools (see their site for a complete list of projects recently funded through the state RCSIG program). World Relief DuPage/Aurora (WRDA)’s Refugee Youth Program is one such project. In order to help refugee children and youth succeed in their new community, WRDA project staff have worked to bridge the cultural and linguistic gaps that exist between refugee families and the schools and have successfully involved the local community in providing extra-curricular activities to refugee students. Since 1999, the project has helped refugee students and their families adjust to American schools and has provided supportive services to school staff through on-going consultations and trainings. This project recently expanded its after-school programs for refugee children in grades K-12 to five tutoring clubs, a soccer club, and an art club. In addition to teaching basic skills for success, these weekly after-school clubs provide a nurturing environment where students can learn and grow through on-going relationships with adult volunteers and mentors from the community. BRYCS is featuring this project as “promising” due to its strong track record of involving the larger community in these school-related services to refugee youth and children, and its increasing ability to evaluate and demonstrate the project’s success through objective measures. See the Program Description for more information about WRDA’s Refugee Youth Services.

The Transitional Schooling Program of Catholic Charities’ Migration and Refugee Services of Louisville and the Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky is another example of “promising” programming aimed to support the transition of refugee children into local schools funded through the RCSIG program. This project is geared specifically to assisting the growing population of non-English-speaking refugee children who have had little-to-no formal school experience or who have had their schooling interrupted by the events of their refugee experience. This project not only provides these students with the extra training and support they need to move into regular ESL classes, but it also involves the refugee students’ families and the larger community in its services, promoting mutual education and integration for all involved. See the Program Description for more information about the Louisville-based Transitional Schooling Program.

1 – Randy Capps, Michael Fix, Julie Murray, Jason Ost, Jeffrey S. Passel, and Shinta Herwantoro (n.d.). The New Demography of America’s Schools, p. 36. The Urban Institute: Washington, D.C.
2 – See: P.L. 107-110, Title 1, Part A, Subpart 1, Sec. 1111 (b)(2)(C)(v)(II)(aa) – Sec. 1111 (b)(2)(C)(v)(II)(dd).
3 – Randy Capps, Michael Fix, Julie Murray, Jason Ost, Shinta Herwantoro, Wendy Zimmerman, and Jeffrey S. Passel (December 2004). Promise or Peril: Immigrants, LEP Students and the No Child Left Behind Act. The Urban Institute: Washington, D.C.
4 – Randy Capps, Michael Fix, Julie Murray, Jason Ost, Jeffrey S. Passel, and Shinta Herwantoro (n.d.). The New Demography of America’s Schools, p. 15. The Urban Institute: Washington, D.C.
5 – Laura Batt, Jimmy Kim and Gail Sunderman (February 2005). “Limited English Proficient Students: Increased Accountability under NCLB,” p.1. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University: Cambridge, MA.
6 – Randy Capps, Michael Fix, Julie Murray, Jason Ost, Jeffrey S. Passel, and Shinta Herwantoro (n.d.). The New Demography of America’s Schools, p. 15-16. The Urban Institute: Washington, D.C.
7 – U.S. Department of Education (December 2, 2003). Press Releases: Paige Outlines No Child Left Behind Act’s “Ten Key Benefits for Parents of English Language Learners” (in English or Spanish).
8 – Laura Batt, Jimmy Kim and Gail Sunderman (February 2005). “Limited English Proficient Students: Increased  Accountability under NCLB,” p. 9-10. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University: Cambridge, MA.
9 – Contact Sherry Johnson at to order these resources or for more information on school aged refugee children. Descriptions of these resources are from the Web site at