Districts’ stringent criteria can delay reclassifying English learners

Laura Hill

Laura Hill

English learners have been a subject of policy concern in California since the early 1970s. The needs of these students — who make up about 25 percent of the state’s public school students today — are well documented. On a host of measures, they lag behind their English-speaking peers. However, English learners who have been reclassified as fluent English speakers perform very well, sometimes even surpassing the achievements of native English speakers.  A longstanding question for policymakers and educators is how to more quickly transition English learners to English proficiency.

The policy landscape is changing for English learners and the districts that serve them. Under California’s old school finance system, districts received some supplemental funding to provide services to English learners. Under the new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the supplemental funding for these students will increase substantially. This supplemental funding ends after a student is reclassified as proficient in English, unless that student qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch or is a foster youth. About 85 percent of reclassified students would fall into one of these categories, but even so, some advocates worry that the fiscal disincentive to reclassify students will make districts more likely to delay reclassification.

Maggie Weston

Maggie Weston

Further compounding this concern is the lack of a statewide reclassification policy — currently, districts set their own standards. The State Board of Education has issued guidelines to help districts in these efforts. For example, to demonstrate mastery of basic skills, the State Board recommends that students receive a score of basic to mid-point basic on the English Language Arts portion of the California Standards Test. Districts, however, may choose a score above this range, and many do.

A recent PPIC report has contributed to this conversation. We surveyed school districts about their reclassification policies and received responses from a representative group of more than 300, which serve a majority of the state’s students and English learners. We categorized reclassification criteria into degrees of rigor that went beyond the State Board of Education guidelines. We then linked district policies to the outcomes of individual English learners and reclassified students, using the state’s longitudinal student database, known as CALPADs.

We found that almost all districts use at least one reclassification criterion that is more rigorous than the State Board’s guidelines. Many districts use more than one. Districts using more rigorous reclassification policies had lower reclassification rates in many cases. For example, requiring a higher score on the CST English Language Arts exam (e.g., proficient instead of basic) is associated with a decrease in reclassification rates of 3 percentage points. For an average district with a 10 percent reclassification rate, this would translate to a 30 percent reduction in the number of reclassified students.

In many — but not all — cases, setting the bar higher is linked to improved student outcomes for reclassified English learners. But these outcomes are not improved by much. In districts that require a score of proficient or better on the English Language Arts exam, reclassified students exhibit only slightly higher test scores and on-time graduation rates than reclassified students in districts without this more rigorous requirement.

But criteria that are more rigorous do not necessarily lead to improved outcomes. Students required to score proficient for 9th grade reclassification are no more likely than students who do not face this standard to complete the course requirements, known as A-G, necessary for admission to California universities. And they are slightly less likely to get a high school diploma.

In other words, the benefits to reclassified students of being held to higher reclassification standards are minimal — especially in light of the high performance of reclassified students in districts using the state guidelines.

Standardizing district reclassification policies into one uniform policy — for now, using the State Board of Education guidelines — would reduce concerns about districts setting their reclassification standards to maintain supplemental LCFF funding. It would also make comparisons across districts possible. Most importantly, it would speed the transition to reclassified status for highly able English learners.

Looking ahead, the two standardized tests critical to reclassification decisions are changing. The annual assessment given to English learners and the standardized tests given to all students are being aligned with the Common Core State Standards. These tests will not both be fully implemented until 2016-17. Any additional research on reclassification standards should seek to understand how best to reclassify English learners with the new Smarter Balanced assessments and the new English Language Proficiency Assessments for California.

Laura Hill and Margaret Weston are research fellows at the Public Policy Institute of California. Their report, Reclassification of English Learner Students in California, co-authored with Joseph Hayes, is available at ppic.org.

Filed under: Commentary, High-Needs Students



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10 Responses to “Districts’ stringent criteria can delay reclassifying English learners”

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  1. Jeremy Aldrich on Apr 10, 2014 at 7:21 am04/10/2014 7:21 am

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    There are at least two important questions here:
    1 – What is best for English-proficient (or very close to English-proficient) students who are/were English Language Learners? I am hard pressed to say that removing existing supports is in their best interest. However, they should certainly also have opportunities (and support!) for intentional “mainstreaming” with a goal of on-grade-level achievement in English and all content areas.

    2 – What is best for schools and districts that serve ELLs? Clearly, schools (and ultimately the students) benefit from funding to provide additional supports/services. Additionally, and surprisingly not mentioned in the article, English Language Learners (called Limited English Proficient or LEP in No Child Left Behind) is one of the major subgroups for reporting federal and state accountability testing. It has always seemed perverse to me that when schools are successful with LEP students they can no longer count their success in their school test results – imagine if schools with very successful African-American students had to reclassify them as another race when they showed achievement on mandated tests, or when SPED students achieved they were no longer considered SPED. This may be as powerful a motivator as any to keep high-achieving ELLs listed on the rolls for as long as possible.

  2. Gary Ravani on Apr 9, 2014 at 2:15 pm04/9/2014 2:15 pm

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    How about a little of that “theoretical baloney?”

    Myriad sources, CA Center for Applied Linguistics for example, will explain that students acquire language in a variety of ways and over a variety of time periods. The training teachers go through for working with ELL students talks about two basic categories: BICS (basic interpersonal communication skills), and CALPS (cognitive academic language proficiency skills). Basically, BICS is “playground English,” and CALPS is classroom/textbook English. Research (and practical experience) suggest BICS can be acquired by most students in 2 to 3 years and CALPS in 4 to 6 years. It should be emphasized that CALPS is acquired, like most of what goes on in the classroom, if some effort is put into it and students have the necessary out-of-school supports.

    That leads me to question if the “researchers” above, have not put the cause and effect of reclassification out of order. Are students not being reclassified resulting in diminished academic progress, or is lack of academic progress resulting in the reluctance to reclassify some students?

    And then we get to some trotting out the old Bush slogan about: “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Some suggestion that, after several decades of a growing ELL population in CA, and the consequent requirement that teachers receive formal training in working with the ELL population, that it is the teachers’
    attitude, or believing students to be “slow,” that affects their learning. That is, and always has been, an attempt to deflect attention form the real and hard bigotry of underfunding of education, lack of decent and affordable housing, lack of living wage jobs for parents, shortages of high quality early care and pre-school, and lack of access to health care. At least we are starting to close that health care gap.

  3. navigio on Apr 8, 2014 at 2:07 pm04/8/2014 2:07 pm

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    Ironically, if districts truly are using an artificially high reclassification barrier as a means to retain EL students it also means they would have less incentive to deny adequate services to those students.
    However, if the barrier were done away with and districts care more about money than students then that would create an incentive to find some other way to retain ELs (eg explicitly deny them services).

    Anyway, independent of all the theoretical baloney, it’s interesting that attempts to increase access for at-risk groups is invariably met with claims of fraud. It is worth noting that withholding services based on that argument also achieves nothing for those students. It does, however, achieve something for those claiming fraud. Mmm-mmm, politics in California.

  4. Don on Apr 8, 2014 at 10:54 am04/8/2014 10:54 am

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    If there was actual accountability for moving students from far-below or below basic to basic or above – a monetary incentive to actually improve – districts would not have the a counter incentive to lower the numbers of eligible students. Yet, the whole funding formula is predicated on demographics rather than actual achievement, so this is just par for the course.

  5. navigio on Apr 7, 2014 at 5:50 pm04/7/2014 5:50 pm

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    Ok, so it appears that one thing mentioned in the report but not in the article is that the policy suggestion being made is based on the assumption that EL programs do harm to students and that the more traditional instructional environment (ie no EL program) is the cause for the high achievement of reclassified students. That is a pretty surprising (even shocking) statement and one I believe needs to be substantiated. Note that it is possible this is not intended to imply that the entire EL program is at fault, rather that an initial portion of it pays dividends, while the latter portion is what does the harm, for example; I don’t know (I didnt see any such distinction on first perusal). At some level I could see this being the case specifically for some LTELs, though I also think their lack of performance has many causes other than the EL program specifically.
    Note also that simply limiting the duration of EL classification (independent of the threshold used) would also be a valid policy suggestion if this negative impact is only limited to the EL program’s latter years.
    Regardless, I am not convinced that just the performance data presented here is sufficient to justify this policy suggestion. Note especially that if it were the EL program that were doing harm, it would be impossible for RFEPs to outscore english only students immediately upon being reclassified (ie at 2nd grade) since they have not yet had access to a non-EL program environment. I hope it is not the suggestion that the only reason ELs perform so poorly in 2nd grade is because they’ve had 3 years of a program dragging them down! (perhaps with the implication they would have performed as well as RFEPs had they not had any intervention?!)


    • Ze'ev Wurman on Apr 7, 2014 at 8:03 pm04/7/2014 8:03 pm

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      Well, navigio, as much as you dislike it, evidence for that has been floating around for years: that students are kept in EL programs for longer than necessary, and that it is academically damaging for them. It’s not that EL in itself must be damaging, but most often it is — less academically qualified teachers, low expectations as language difficulties are translated in teacher’s mind to the student being “slow,” etc.

      • navigio on Apr 7, 2014 at 8:19 pm04/7/2014 8:19 pm

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        so the ‘solution’ is to reduce the threshold simply to let fewer take part in the program in the first place? what’s the next step, do away with EL altogether?
        not sure where you got ‘dislike’ from. my comments were about whether the policy suggestion followed from the data presented. doing away with EL altogether would be a huge policy change. I think that deserves being stated outright if that’s where this is going.

        • Ze'ev Wurman on Apr 9, 2014 at 12:05 pm04/9/2014 12:05 pm

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          About your “dislike,” I got it from your second paragraph. But I may have read too much into it. Sorry.

          The solution (part of, anyway) is, indeed, to make the threshold for leaving sheltered instruction reasonably low so students can be reclassified as soon as they can function within regular classrooms. It does not have to mean that they will get no additional support, but such support should be individualized on as-needed basis, rather than given by default and within the generally low academic level of EL classes.

  6. navigio on Apr 7, 2014 at 1:56 pm04/7/2014 1:56 pm

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    I am glad someone is trying to quantify this!

    That said, I would actually support expanding the pool of students that are qualified to receive intervention and other support rather than reducing it by merely lowering the criteria to reclassify. One way previously discussed here would be to extend it to native speakers, for example.
    I can only read the report later, but two things jump out at me: I don’t think its a good idea to base the measure of improved outcomes on 9th grade students. Those students are nowhere near the typical english learner. I even wouldn’t be surprised to find out that EL scores are inflated at the high school level by the fact that the worst performers are so much more likely to drop out.
    I also think it should be mentioned that reclassified students are among the highest performing subgroups there are. This may not be as a result of improved services but merely based on how we split the EL group in two. Without better data we will never be able to know which it is.

  7. Arun Ramanathan on Apr 7, 2014 at 1:12 pm04/7/2014 1:12 pm

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    This is a really important report that didn’t get a lot of attention when it was released that highlights a fundamental long-term problem with the current system of reclassification. The authors are right in saying that there must be, in a state with a third of the nation’s English Learners, a uniform process for reclassification. This process should not produce perverse incentives on either side given the stakes for individual students.

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