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.
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.