Researchers, advocates divided over reclassifying English learners

May 17, 2017

Students have lunch at Skyline High School in Oakland.

Researchers and language experts have long criticized the subjectivity and variations in criteria that California districts have used to determine when English learners are proficient in English. But proposed legislation to create uniform, statewide standards for doing so has hit a snag, with some of the nation’s leading academic experts expressing strong opposition to the bill.

Rather than fix inconsistency in how districts reclassify English learners, Senate Bill 463 “risks exacerbating the state’s long-term English learner problem,” 28 researchers and academicians wrote in an April 28 letter to California Senate leaders and the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown. Lead signers were California’s noted experts on English learners: Robert Linquanti, a project director on English learners at the San Francisco research agency WestEd, and Kenji Hakuta, a linguistics professor emeritus at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.

Federal law requires that states standardize how to determine when English learners are English proficient, no longer qualifying for extra English language services. The rift is over the criteria that would be used and the role of districts and teachers in making the judgment.

The timing is important. California is switching to a new test measuring English learners’ fluency, and researchers believe the results on the test should be the predominant factor in deciding proficiency.

Current state law sets a minimum of four factors in deciding English learners’ proficiency, but gives districts wide discretion and the ability to add other factors.

A 2014 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 90 percent of districts were adopting more rigorous requirements than the State Board of Education had recommended, resulting in a slower reclassification rate for many of the state’s more than 1.3 million English learners.

About 1 in 10 English learners are reclassified each year, with lower rates for Spanish speakers and low-income students, according to an analysis of the bill. Holding back English learners unnecessarily “can impede access to educational opportunities,” the researchers state in their letter, particularly in high school. Fewer long-term English learners graduate from high school and fewer are on track to graduate ready for college.

SB 463, authored by Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, would adopt the four current state criteria used for reclassification: performance on the state assessment of English language proficiency; evaluation by teachers; consultation with parents; and the mastery of basic skills as measured by comparable scores of English-only students on a standardized English language arts test that all students take annually. That currently is the Smarter Balanced assessment.

Under the bill, the State Board of Education would consult with experts to set scores on the fluency assessment for English learners and on the Smarter Balanced test that would qualify students for reclassification. But local districts could override the scores if teachers concluded that students weren’t academically ready.

The Senate Education Committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill, which is now in the Senate Appropriations Committee and must still be heard by the Assembly.

Inappropriate measures

Linquanti said the bill runs contrary to extensive research that recommends against using a test like Smarter Balanced. That test measures curriculum content and skills like analyzing a thesis statement; it wasn’t designed to measure language fluency, he said. Lara’s bill doesn’t suggest a score on Smarter Balanced that would qualify an English learner for reclassification, but Linquanti noted that only half of English-only speakers scored proficient last year.

Teachers should be consulted, he said, but he worries about subjectivity. In the past, teachers have based their decisions on behavior or grades – inappropriate criteria, he said. Teachers statewide should be trained to use “standardized protocols” to ensure consistency, he said.

Credit: John Fensterwald / EdSource

Robert Linquanti

Linquanti and other researchers are setting high expectations for the state’s new English language fluency test, the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California or ELPAC, which will replace the California English Language Development Test. ELPAC is going through a field test this spring and will go into effect in July 2018. It will initially be given to kindergartners to identify English learners and then administered annually to English learners to measure their progress toward proficiency.

Linquanti said that, unlike the current test, ELPAC will reflect the challenges of the Common Core standards and is expected to be a more rigorous test. With two years of student test data in hand, state experts will set a score signifying proficiency, the level at which English learners will have an “equal chance” at successfully performing academically as English-only students. That score, he said, should be the primary factor in reclassifying English learners.

But Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Californians Together, a coalition of organizations that advocate for English learners, said it is premature to conclude that ELPAC will be a better test. Her organization backs the bill, with the multiple factors determining reclassification, including the use of the Smarter Balanced test.

Students who test English proficient may still need help with writing skills and with academic language, she said. She supports providing teachers with training to help English learners in their specialized areas, but that wouldn’t happen with premature reclassification, she said. “Districts would be let off the hook” from giving the trainings, Spiegel-Coleman said.

And she said she is worried about cutting out the role of teachers, who are in the best position to determine students’ weaknesses. “There has to be place for them to give input,” she said.

The Association of California School Administrators supports the bill if amended. Lobbyist Martha Alvarez said the association agrees with researchers that a test should measure linguistic acquisition, as ELPAC will, not content knowledge. And teachers’ judgment should be on curriculum mastery and exclude other factors like grades. She agreed with Spiegel-Coleman that the bill would be a big step toward creating consistency for reclassification across districts.

In a statement, Lara said that, moving forward, he is willing to work with researchers and district administrators on the bill. But he said he’s not content to wait for several years in order to gather results on the ELPAC.

“Reclassification affects a student’s whole academic career. Every year tens of thousands of children are reclassified as English proficient using vastly different criteria,” he wrote. “We can’t keep waiting for a perfect solution when we can help English learners now.”

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