It is often said that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Like, for instance, children who began school with limited or no English language skills, yet who succeed in learning enough to be redesignated as proficient in English, and moved into the mainstream.
In California, these children, termed Reclassified – Fluent English Proficient (R-FEP) students, are among the highest achievers in the public education system. They regularly outperform state averages for all students, having done so on the standardized CAT/6 test in all subjects in each of the past three years (the test is given to third and seventh graders).
In fact, they even outscored students who are native English speakers, in every subject and grade level, over the same period. Actually, the two groups tied in reading in 2005 at the seventh grade level. But, even then, students who had previously been English learners outscored native English speakers by 11 points in spelling.
The process of students becoming proficient in English and being redesignated into the mainstream happens slowly in California. Statewide, less than 10 percent of English learners are redesignated annually. In other words, most of them will remain in bilingual education, or other special language programs, for over 10 years. By contrast, redesignation rates in Florida and New Jersey are more than three times higher.
Why does this process happen so slowly in California? Experts have cited factors including funding formulas for schools that are tied to numbers of English learners, high-stakes testing incentives and arrangements, and a general belief by many educators that children should be held back until they are deemed ready, even if other criteria have been met. Success rates, and policies, vary significantly from one school district to next.
Sacramento County’s Elk Grove school district, the state’s third largest, has consistently had among California’s highest annual redesignation rates for English learners over the past several years. Elk Grove’s R-FEP seventh graders have also regularly posted among the states’ best CAT/6 test scores in reading, language arts, math and spelling.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles USD has tripled its redesignation rates over the past 4 years, to well above the state average. Its CAT/6 test scores for former English learners, however, stayed generally the same at the seventh grade level, while third grade scores fell only slightly. Los Angeles has emphasized early English proficiency through policy changes and teacher training.
There is no more important factor for the assimilation of these children into America’s educational and economic mainstream than English proficiency. Most of them are not even immigrants themselves: two-thirds of English learners belong to the second or third generation in their family to live in this country. Those who become proficient in English in elementary school face far better chances of avoiding academic failure than those who do not. And for those that do, as these test scores indicate, their success can be very convincing indeed.
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