California has shown some of the nation’s biggest improvements by English language learners on standardized tests over the past 5 years. But the state has also had some of the lowest rates at which these students are successfully reclassified each year as proficient in English. What’s going wrong?
There is a noticeable trend that reclassification rates are increasing over the past three years in many school districts. With a growing emphasis on developing early English fluency, this represents important progress. But at 8 percent, California’s statewide success rate for reclassifying English learners is still only slightly higher than it was before voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998.
The law ostensibly ended most bilingual education and replaced it with a new structured English immersion approach that emphasized early English fluency.
State Superintendent for Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, in announcing the latest test score and reclassification results for English learners, noted, “We clearly need to look at why this gap is occurring and determine how to address it.”
Even in Oceanside Unified School District, frequently described as the district that complied most thoroughly with Proposition 227, reclassification rates for English learners rose only as high as 9 percent in 2005, up from 6.7 percent in 1997.
This represents a dismally low level of success, regardless of what method of teaching English is being used. Recently, leaders of the National Association of Bilingual Educators asserted that it takes 5 years to teach English learners to be fluent in English properly. Even taken at their word, this would translate to annual success rates much higher than what California’s are today.
A 2006 report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office underscored Superintendent O’Connell’s concerns, observing that the state’s English learners were making “too slow” progress mastering English. It also suggested that higher standardized test scores in recent years by this group were the result, in part, of schools using higher reclassification standards, rather than achieving better academic results.
In other words, it argued that some California schools may be keeping higher-achieving English learners segregated longer to boost that group’s test scores overall. Further, the report pointed out that incentives in the state’s current system “can actually reward districts that delay the reclassification of students.”
School funding formulas also create incentives for schools to keep students classified as English learners after their English skills justify moving them into mainstream, English classrooms. A 2005 study by the Public Policy Institute of California linked the way schools receive funding for English learners to the current low transition rates. “Federal and state funding formulas directed at English learners are allocated per pupil, so funding is lost when students are reclassified,” the report said.
The California State Auditor went further, finding in 2005 that in 62 percent of the cases they examined, students had met their school districts’ criteria for redesignation (fluent English status) but had not been reclassified. The auditor found that these districts were not following their own policies for reclassifying English learners.
In California, school districts are allowed to create their own policies for transitioning English learners out of special language classrooms and into mainstream, English classes.
Such failures in bringing children to English fluency are not uniform throughout California – rates varies substantially from one district to the next. Long Beach Unified redesignated 15.2 percent of its English learners last year, down from 18.0 percent the year before. Long Beach is the state’s third largest school district and one-third of its students are English learners.
San Jose Unified on the other hand, which has fewer children in each classroom, a poorer student population and more English learners, had transition rates of roughly half that amount: 8.2 percent last year up from 5.5 percent in 2003-04.
This is not to say that the school district is content to be trailing the state average. San Jose administrators attribute their recent reclassification rate gains to classroom changes, including implementing a new technology-based English acquisition program in some classrooms.
Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, had a dismally low, 4.2 percent, success rate for English learners as recently as the 2003-04 school year. But a new emphasis on early English fluency has caused that rate to improve to 9.5 percent in 2005-06.
California is not the only state with such low success rates: Illinois, Arizona and Texas are also well below 10 percent, and all have large populations of English learners. But other states with large English learner populations are much more successful: Florida and New Jersey had transition rates of 29 percent and 31 percent respectively.
Another important factor is that, beginning in 2006, California students are required to pass a high school graduation exam in order to graduate. English language learners are far less likely to pass the graduation exam than the general population. Only 49 percent of English learners passed in 2003, compared with 79 percent of all other students.
Improvements like those in the California school districts mentioned above certainly represent movement in the right direction. But if the state truly wants to be an educational leader, more progress will be necessary, before another generation of English learners slips through its cracks.
Find Archived Articles: