California accountability data masks English learner progress, report says

February 19, 2021

The California State Board of Education has adopted a policy guiding the education of the state's 1.2 million English learners.

California school data doesn’t paint a full picture of English learners. It’s more like a sketch.

That’s according to a new report by Californians Together, a nonprofit organization that researches and advocates for students who speak a language other than English at home. These students make up about 2.4 million students in the state — 2 out of 5 students.

The report, which is supported by several other partner organizations, says the state’s school accountability tool, the California School Dashboard, makes it too easy for districts to receive high scores for English learners’ progress, because it sets too low a percentage for how many students should be progressing in proficiency each year, and because it lumps students still learning English together with those who have achieved fluency.

“Right now very few districts have the urgency to focus on their English learners based on the dashboard,” said Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together.

The groups that endorsed the report are proposing that the state require more students to show progress toward English proficiency in order for school districts to receive a high score on English learner progress. California’s English Learner Roadmap, a set of policies to guide districts on how to serve English learners, states that English learners should achieve proficiency in six years, based on research. The state has set six levels of proficiency, based on a test English learners are required to take every year, and students are expected to advance one level a year to show progress.

Currently, though, a district can get a “high score” in English learner progress if just 55% of English learners move up at least one level in English proficiency in a year. Districts receive a “very low” score, and are required to receive technical assistance, if fewer than 35% of students progress from one level of English proficiency to the next in a year.

“We think that’s a really low threshold. We understand that some students won’t make one level’s growth, because of a variety of things. But 80% of students should be able to make growth,” Hernandez said.

The organizations also recommend the state separate measurements on the state’s dashboard for those still learning English and those who used to be English learners but are now considered proficient in English.

The dashboard gives a color-coded score to each district, from red (very low) to blue (very high) for English language arts and math test scores, graduation rates, college and career readiness, absenteeism and suspension rates. The scores are broken down also by race and ethnicity, as well as by subgroups such as homeless students, students from low-income families, or English learners. But the English learner score is based on measurements both for those still learning English and those who achieved proficiency in the last four years. Hernandez said if the state separated scores of students who have achieved English proficiency from those who are still learning English, more school districts would have red scores for English learners.

“There’s no urgency to address their needs because they appear to be yellow when in fact if you disaggregate English learners from reclassified students, English learners are in the red,” Hernandez said.

The state accountability system supports schools and districts with data and analysis that is inclusive of all English learners, said Jonathan Mendick, a spokesman for the California Department of Education.

“All English learners are expected to make progress. The state-level data aids the school district (or Local Educational Agency, or LEA) in beginning to determine the necessary support for their English learners as they are expected to further analyze these measures with data at the local level,” Mendick wrote in an email.

Removing reclassified students from the state’s English Learner Progress Indicator “would reduce the number of schools held accountable for the progress of their EL students by half (since you must have at least 30 students to meet the numerally significant threshold),” he said.

The organizations that published the report say separating current and former English learners will help identify districts and schools that need additional support to help students learn English. It could also help the state identify districts that are doing well. The report makes the case that separating the two groups is particularly crucial as the state prepares a growth measurement tool that will follow students’ scores over several years to see how they improve.

Pete Goldschmidt, a California State University professor, separated current and former English learner scores when he served as the New Mexico assistant secretary of education for assessment and accountability from 2011 to 2014.

“One of the things we saw in New Mexico is reclassified students tended to do pretty well after they reclassified, which means the programs prepared them well to succeed in their academic careers, which is what you want. But to be able to say that with any sort of certainty, you have to look at it,” said Goldschmidt, who is now a professor at the School of Education at CSU Northridge, where he teaches about research methods and program evaluation.

In some districts in California, former English learners who have achieved proficiency do better on standardized English language arts tests than students whose first language is English.

“What we’re finding from our data as a district, and I think it’s pretty consistent with other districts as well, is that once English learners are reclassified, they outperform even those who were not identified as English learners,” said Rowena Mak, district coordinator for services for English learners in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, in Orange County. “Meaning that the work done by the school districts in really providing that student with English language development skills before they are transitioned to regular mainstream classes without English language support is fantastic.”

Goldschmidt said the opposite can also be true — sometimes when students have been reclassified as fluent in English, their test scores begin to falter because they no longer receive language support.

“If they’re falling behind as a group in a school, that to me would be the first thing you want to look at. How’s their English proficiency now since they don’t have language support anymore?” Goldschmidt said.

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