Credit: Pat Maio/EdSource
Fourth grade English learner students at Wilson Elementary School in Sanger.

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Throughout my decades of experience within the educational system as a teacher and administrator including nine years as the director of curriculum for the Ventura County Office of Education and now as the executive director of Californians Together, I have seen the waves of changes that impact the educational experiences of English learners — the good, the bad and the ugly.

I saw that when we supported districts to understand and analyze their English learner data, they understood the urgency to focus on these students and sought support to improve their outcomes. We know that English learners can achieve the same high levels of academic success as any student.

However, the state’s accountability system continues to mask the needs of English learners by under-representing current English learner academic needs, creating low expectations for growth in learning English and not requiring English learner goals in district Local Control and Accountability Plans. This has resulted in many districts not planning for their support and success. We need an accountability system that puts the spotlight on the actual needs of English learners.

The state has created a system — the California School Dashboard — to identify schools that need help improving outcomes for different student groups. Yet, in 2019, the accountability indicator on the dashboard demonstrating progress in learning English only identified 20 school districts serving a mere 9,051 English learners as being eligible for assistance from the state to improve the performance of their English learners. This is less than 1% of English learners statewide. The expectations for English proficiency growth are so low that only a few districts are identified to receive additional support. It is clear that there is a mismatch between actual English learner outcomes and how the outcomes are represented on the dashboard.

For example, at the Sept. 22 of the State Board of Education, a representative from the Kern County Office of Education reported that 83% of English learners in the county did not meet standards in math and 68% did not meet standards in English, but only two of the 48 districts were identified for additional intervention under the state’s formula for identifying districts for differentiated assistance.

Unfortunately, the Kern County situation is not unique. In 2022-23, only two districts in the entire state were required by the state’s accountability system to include a goal in their Local Control and Accountability Plans, LCAPs, for English learners. The projection by the California Department of Education, using a simulation with the 2019 data, only designates 47 school districts for additional support for English learners through differentiated assistance, not even one district per county.

In our most recent report, Searching for Equity for English Learners, we reviewed local accountability plans from 26 school districts that had among the highest percentage or number of English learners in California. Eighty-one percent (21 out of 26 of those plans) had ratings of “weak” or “no evidence” when it came to including desired outcomes for English learners to close gaps. The current practice of many districts is to create the same goals for all students as opposed to setting accelerated goals to close achievement gaps, which only perpetuates an inequitable system.

For example, one district identified the high school dropout rate as one of their metrics with a targeted decrease of 3% for all students, and they projected the same percent decrease for English learners — essentially not reducing or closing the gap given the dropout rate for English learners in 2019-20 was almost double the documented rate for all students (overall 11.5%; English learners 21.4%). At a minimum, districts should be required to set specific goals for English learners that lead to closing gaps.

Over the last decade, California has embarked on a visionary approach to transforming our educational system, shifting to multiple measures of student success through the California Dashboard and to local decision-making through the Local Control Funding Formula. But there is something amiss when the accountability system diminishes the critical need to address English learners. None of this was intended, but if we ignore the results, then this accountability system does not live up to the equity intent of the funding formula.

What we need is an accountability system that is transparent, aspirational and drives an urgency to address the needs of English learners.

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Martha Hernandez is executive director of Californians Together, a nonprofit organization working to improve outcomes for English learners. 

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