Report focuses attention on English learners

September 23, 2014
student description of how to figure out that 5 times 4 equals 20

As accountability for student progress in California becomes more local, a new report focuses on how school districts can better educate their English learners – calling on administrators to embrace biliteracy, provide a rigorous curriculum and train all teachers in how to support language development in core courses, not just English language development classes.

The report, by Oakland-based advocacy group The Education Trust–West, also recommends that the state continue to provide more funds for these students for up to two years after they have become fluent in English. That way districts will not have the “perverse incentive” to keep the students as English learners – in many cases denying them a more rigorous curriculum – to generate more funds, the authors say.

Under the Local Control Funding Formula, districts receive extra funding for English learners, but that funding disappears when the students are designated as fluent.

The report, “The Language of Reform: English learners in California’s shifting education landscape,” reviewed the progress of English learners in 276 unified districts serving at least 100 of those students in 2012-13. Tables in the report include the data from all 276 districts.

Nearly one of four students in California is learning English, and 85 percent of them live in low-income households. They have more than 60 home languages, though 85 percent speak Spanish. “Too often,” the report authors say, “they encounter insufficient academic supports, ill-prepared teachers and less rigorous coursework.”

Nearly one of four students in California is learning English, and 85 percent of them live in low-income households.

The researchers found 11 districts “that break the pattern” with better achievement, language acquisition and reclassification patterns. Those districts, the report said:

The districts’ approach to achieving those goals varied considerably, said lead author Carrie Hahnel, adding that “there are multiple pathways to achieve success with English learners.”

“We did not see a clear pattern or a couple of interventions that are needed in order to achieve success,” she said.

The researchers used four measures to determine how well districts were doing: proficiency rates on the English Language Arts portion of the California Standards Test; annual progress on the California English Learners Development Test, which measures how well students can read, write and speak English; how many students have been classified as English learners for five or more years (called long-term English learners); and the rates at which students are reclassified from English learner to fluent English proficient.

The researchers also created a new category of students, called “Ever-ELs,” that includes English learners and those who have been reclassified as fluent. By looking at the performance of the two sets of students together, the researchers found, “we can better understand the complicated relationship between reclassification policies and proficiency for these two subgroups of students.”

“We need to divorce access to classwork from reclassification,” said lead author Carrie Hahnel.

Reclassification policies can be particularly troublesome to evaluate, the researchers found, because districts are given a lot of leeway in deciding when a student is ready to be reclassified.

Some districts reclassify students quickly, making them eligible for a more rigorous curriculum but perhaps denying them the language support that they need, the report said. Other districts are slow to reclassify, perhaps denying access to stronger coursework, but not necessarily doing so. Those districts could simply be keeping students as English learners so they can continue to provide language support as the students access a Common Core-aligned curriculum.

“We need to divorce access to classwork from reclassification,” Hahnel said.

The report recommends that the state create clearer, more uniform reclassification standards and guidelines, given that the English learner label “can sometimes be a barrier to rigorous coursework and a college-going pathway.”

“If we have a single statewide approach to reclassification and know the criteria and standards, then we have a common understanding as to what it means to move from one label to the other,” Hahnel said.

The report also calls on districts to ensure that their Local Control and Accountability Plans include specific goals for English learners regarding academic achievement, English acquisition and reclassification. The authors also want districts to report test data separately for students who have been English learners for five years or more. In addition, they say, data should focus on student progress, not just overall proficiency.

As the new Smarter Balanced tests based on Common Core State Standards are being implemented, districts should closely monitor their impact on English learners, the authors say.

“It is essential that linguistic barriers related to testing are identified and addressed before high stakes are attached to test results,” they said.


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