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students write on worksheets in classroom

Credit: Lillian Mongeau for EdSource

Second graders Jayden Lew and Giselle Ortega work on their Spanish grammar at Edison Elementary School in Glendale, where they are enrolled in a dual language immersion program.

Researchers studying a group of California school districts are highly critical of the state’s system for providing services to English language learners in a report released this week.

Citing disparities in results and strategies among districts, professors from Stanford and other universities called for creating common, statewide criteria for determining who English learners are and for determining when they no longer need extra help. They also recommend:

  • Stronger monitoring to ensure that English learners have access to core academic classes and demanding content, the lack of which contributes to a lower graduation rate and readiness for college.
  • Better preparing new teachers and training existing teachers to understand second language acquisition and how to incorporate language instruction in all content areas.
  • Ending the general ban on bilingual education and creating incentives for districts to expand bilingual and dual language immersion programs, which researchers said can be more effective than English-only instruction in teaching English fluency. An initiative to rescind Proposition 227, the 1998 general ban on bilingual education, will be on the ballot in 2016.

The report incorporates findings of three school district–university research partnerships: in Los Angeles Unified, in a collaboration of seven small and medium-sized districts known as the English Language Learner Leadership Network, and in an unnamed large urban district working with Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. The report was published by Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, an education research and policy organization. Ilana Umansky, an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, was the lead researcher. Several professors at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, including Sean Reardon and Kenji Hakuta, were co-authors.

One key finding was the rate at which English learners were identified as learning disabled. In six of the seven districts in the English learner network, long-term English learners – those receiving language services for six or more years – were also classified in need of special education at two to four times the rate as non-English learners. In Napa Unified, 40 percent of long-term English learners were co-labeled special education students. This may indicate that the districts can’t distinguish between English learners with academic needs and those with learning disabilities, the study said.

About 23 percent of California’s students are English learners, the largest number of any state in the nation. By most academic measures – including graduation rates, dropout rates and college attendance – they lag other students in the state. In the initial results of the Smarter Balanced standardized tests in the Common Core standards, only 11 percent of English learners were designated as meeting requirements in math and English language arts – far below the state average.

But the researchers noted that the transition to new academic standards and additional funding for English learners through the Local Control Funding Formula present opportunities for improving education for the state’s 1.4 million English learners, including longer school days for some students.

There will also be a new English proficiency assessment, the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California, or ELPAC, aligned to the Common Core. Replacing the current California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, it will be used to determine when English learners can be reclassified as fluent in English and no longer needing language assistance. The report says it’s critical to set the proficiency score at a level that ensures students will be able to handle academic core content. This was not always the case with the CELDT, it said.

The ELPAC should be used as the sole measure for redesignation statewide, the researchers said. Districts have used additional measures, such as grades and proficiency scores on other state tests, in which the scores held back some students no longer needing sheltered English instruction in classes with less demanding content. There also has been too much discretion in determining reclassification, the report said, and a tendency in some districts to prematurely redesignate middle and high school students.

The report also said that the initial English learner classification is overly broad and does not reflect home conditions, family education and wealth, which are predictive of how quickly an English learner will likely become proficient. The classification rates vary significantly among districts, the report said. It also noted “troubling achievement gaps among English learners of different linguistic and national origins,” with 90 percent English learners of Chinese origin in one district reclassified by middle school, compared to 65 percent of Hispanic English learners.

Citing the need to expand access to core academic instruction, bilingual instruction and better prepared teachers, the report concluded, “Changes along these lines would not necessarily require large new investments, but they could yield substantial benefits for large numbers of California students.”


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  1. Karen Thompson 11 months ago11 months ago

    As a co-author of this policy brief, I want to clarify that across our partnerships, we find that all districts are grappling with challenges in identifying, providing services for, and reclassifying English learner students with disabilities. As we document in our policy brief, there is wide variation in reclassification criteria and reclassification practices across California districts. Districts that reclassify a higher proportion of their English learners are likely to have a higher proportion of EL … Read More

    As a co-author of this policy brief, I want to clarify that across our partnerships, we find that all districts are grappling with challenges in identifying, providing services for, and reclassifying English learner students with disabilities. As we document in our policy brief, there is wide variation in reclassification criteria and reclassification practices across California districts. Districts that reclassify a higher proportion of their English learners are likely to have a higher proportion of EL students at the secondary level who qualify for special education services. If we look at Napa Valley Unified School District in more detail, we see that among the cohort of students who entered the district as ELs in kindergarten in 2006-07, after eight years in the district, 75% of students who remained in the district had been reclassified. Among this total group of students, only 15% qualified for special education. Those who remain ELs are much more likely to qualify for special education. As we urge in the policy brief, establishing common reclassification criteria across the state would facilitate meaningful comparisons across districts and the growth of knowledge about ways to most effectively educate ELs, including ELs with disabilities.

  2. Ann 11 months ago11 months ago

    Here we go again. A group of pro bilingual ( Kenji Hakuta, really?) researchers set up a study in SF, that included funding of a $5 million collaboration to "prove" bilingual ed works and releases it just before an election where politicians who desperately want to overturn 227 have put an initiative on the ballot to do achieve their goal. Prop 227 never ended bilingual classes anyway as evidenced in districts all over … Read More

    Here we go again. A group of pro bilingual ( Kenji Hakuta, really?) researchers set up a study in SF, that included funding of a $5 million collaboration to “prove” bilingual ed works and releases it just before an election where politicians who desperately want to overturn 227 have put an initiative on the ballot to do achieve their goal. Prop 227 never ended bilingual classes anyway as evidenced in districts all over the state. The report, as all have shown in the past, perhaps shows a very, very small positive effect for students in some bilingual programs but does not take into account where the students were in their primary language development when they entered school or the literacy of their parents. These are the factors that matter most in student achievement no matter the primary language.

  3. BEC 11 months ago11 months ago

    Well actually there are studies that say it can take up to 7 years to become proficient in a second language. As a native speaker of English and bi-cultural native of Los Angeles and now bilingual after more than 7 years of studying and majoring in Linguistics & Spanish, I feel I am still learning new things in Spanish. I regularly get newcomers in my classes. I lament that my school no … Read More

    Well actually there are studies that say it can take up to 7 years to become proficient in a second language. As a native speaker of English and bi-cultural native of Los Angeles and now bilingual after more than 7 years of studying and majoring in Linguistics & Spanish, I feel I am still learning new things in Spanish. I regularly get newcomers in my classes. I lament that my school no longer has bilingual classes. I provide primary language support in Spanish but no longer teach literacy in Spanish. It’s a shame that we aren’t taking advantage of this asset that so many students bring to the classroom.

    Is 11% on par with the usual yearly average of Latino ELs who reclassify? Maybe that’s a good number.

  4. MBA 11 months ago11 months ago

    I agree whole heartedly with Peggy. We will never get accurate data on our English Learners as long as they are reclassified as soon as they pass the tests. These students should be followed from kindergarten through 12th grade. Statistics have shown that a child needs three years to become proficient in a language, yet we test them shortly after immigrating to this country. It's time to start collecting accurate data so that … Read More

    I agree whole heartedly with Peggy. We will never get accurate data on our English Learners as long as they are reclassified as soon as they pass the tests. These students should be followed from kindergarten through 12th grade.

    Statistics have shown that a child needs three years to become proficient in a language, yet we test them shortly after immigrating to this country.

    It’s time to start collecting accurate data so that we can really see realistic results on the funds received through Title I and Local Control Funding.

  5. Peggy Stein 11 months ago11 months ago

    You write, "In the initial results of the Smarter Balanced standardized tests in the Common Core standards, only 11 percent of English learners were designated as meeting requirements in math and English language arts – far below the state average." You do understand, Mr. Fensterwald, that ELs will of course score low on these tests. If a student can achieve a proficient score on the state standardized tests (and pass a writing test in many … Read More

    You write, “In the initial results of the Smarter Balanced standardized tests in the Common Core standards, only 11 percent of English learners were designated as meeting requirements in math and English language arts – far below the state average.” You do understand, Mr. Fensterwald, that ELs will of course score low on these tests. If a student can achieve a proficient score on the state standardized tests (and pass a writing test in many districts) they will be reclassified– and will no longer be considered English Learners. It is no surprise that English learners test far below the state average– by nature of being English learners. They are being tested in a language in which they are not proficient.
    The lack of support for these students at all grade levels and the below average graduation rate of ELs are really what we should be concerned about.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 11 months ago11 months ago

      Good point, Peggy. The average scores for English learners do not include those who have been reclassified. But the low scores do indicate the need for appropriate and effective services.

      • Manuel 11 months ago11 months ago

        John, there is no need to subject English learners to the Smarter Balanced tests to know they need services. It is a waste of resources and adds nothing to what we want to know. Indeed, it has never ceased to amaze me that state officials demand that English learners take a test on a language they don't truly understand. Having said that, it is equally amazing to me that LAUSD used to require an English learner … Read More

        John, there is no need to subject English learners to the Smarter Balanced tests to know they need services. It is a waste of resources and adds nothing to what we want to know.

        Indeed, it has never ceased to amaze me that state officials demand that English learners take a test on a language they don’t truly understand.

        Having said that, it is equally amazing to me that LAUSD used to require an English learner to be “basic or above” in the CSTs in order for reclassification to take place. I wondered, why is this requirement not applied to English Only students?

        (BTW, according to Table 3, the report indicates that every district in the study had the same requirement. In retrospect, how is that justified? Also, the reclassification policy of LAUSD was, until September 2, 2015, still requiring a “basic” score in CSTs. It now requires at least a “basic” on something called “the Scholastic Reading Inventory” [see the policy at: http://achieve.lausd.net/cms/lib08/CA01000043/Centricity/Domain/22/RECLASSIFICATIONPOLICY%20FINAL%20092915.pdf%5D. Ever heard about it? If this test is structured like the SBAC or the CST, then it is no better than before.)

        Also, you reported:

        “In Napa Unified, 40 percent of long-term English learners were co-labeled special education students. This may indicate that the districts can’t distinguish between English learners with academic needs and those with learning disabilities, the study said.”

        In the “good ol’ days”, back when English was taught via “sink or swim”, plenty of English learners were deemed Special Ed. (Or at least that is what I’ve read in many places as well as told by old-timers.) It seems that the study authors seem to think this is still going on.

        On the other hand, it does not seem unreasonable that a significant portion of long-term English learners are indeed in need of Special Ed services. But this can be determined independently of their inability to speak/learn English. If Napa Unified has done its work, this should have been evident to to the authors of the study. (BTW, one way to check on whether long-term English learners are misidentified as needing Special Ed is to look at the percentage of English Only student with similar ELA scores that require Special Ed services. If those students are classified as needing Special Ed services in the same proportion as those who are long-term English learners, then it is clear that the need of such services is not tied to the language they are more dominant in.)

        And finally it is about time that Proposition 227 be put to rest. Ron Unz sold the voters a package of “ideas” that had no basis on data but rested on “common sense” that could readily be discredited. Unfortunately, there was, and still is, a belief within the voting public that helping immigrants retain their native language was not to be tolerated (“You are in America, speak English”). Nowadays, there is a shift to learning a second language in the name of economic competitiveness. It therefore seems like a waste (and it is!) to deny literacy on a second language to those who already speak it from early childhood.

  6. JG 11 months ago11 months ago

    Will the ELPAC distinguish among students of different levels of academic ability? Will a student with autism, for example, be required to score as high as her counterparts without autism? A student with certain learning deficits, whether the student be an EL or not, may never reach the same level of literacy as other students. Special education students who are ELs should have to reach the same level of literacy as Special education students who … Read More

    Will the ELPAC distinguish among students of different levels of academic ability? Will a student with autism, for example, be required to score as high as her counterparts without autism?

    A student with certain learning deficits, whether the student be an EL or not, may never reach the same level of literacy as other students. Special education students who are ELs should have to reach the same level of literacy as Special education students who are native English speakers. They should not be required to attain English literacy levels that regular education students must reach.

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