Learner Scores Soar, But Reclassification Numbers Lag Behind
By Kelly Torrance
The Lexington Institute
The latest test scores
for California's English learners show that immigrant children
continue to do well under English immersion. Opponents of
Proposition 227 said the measure, which California voters
passed in 1998, would spell disaster. But the mandate that
schools teach children "overwhelmingly" in English,
rather than in their native languages, has resulted in a
large, demonstrable improvement in English proficiency.
Last year, over 1.3 million English learners took the California
English Language Development Test (CELDT). For kindergarteners
and first graders, the exam assesses listening and speaking
skills. For grades 2 through 12, it also assesses reading
and writing skills.
In 2005, 47 percent of California's English learners scored
in the top two categories of English proficiency - "early
advanced" or "advanced." By comparison, only
25 percent scored in the top two categories in 2001, shortly
after many districts began eliminating their bilingual programs.
That's an improvement of 22 percentage points.
But while many California school districts continue to improve,
particularly those that were previously resistant to immersion,
the system has failed to improve in the area of "reclassification."
Proposition 227 called for structured English immersion
programs that would close the language gap and see students
attending mainstream classes after a temporary transition
period "not normally intended to exceed one year."
But despite real progress in improving test scores, California's
schools are simply not attaining this goal.
So long as they don't score below intermediate on any one
section, students with an overall CELDT score of "early
advanced" or "advanced" are considered by
the state to be proficient in English. But while almost
half of the state's English learners scored in these top
two proficiency categories for the last two years, only
9 percent of them were reclassified as English proficient.
In other words, even though these students are proficient
in English, many are still being segregated from mainstream
English-speaking classrooms. While proficiency - as measured
by the CELDT - has risen markedly, reclassification numbers
lag substantially behind, and have shown little improvement.
In the 2001-2002 school year, 7.8 percent of English learners
were moved to mainstream classes. Three years later, reclassification
stands at 9 percent, a lackluster improvement of only 1.2
percentage points. Meanwhile, proficiency has improved by
22 percentage points.
The state board of education recognizes the problem. "We
clearly need to look at why this gap is occurring and determine
how to address it," aid Jack O'Connell, the State Superintendent
of Public Instruction. He is now urging districts to review
their reclassification procedures, which is a step in the
right direction. But he hasn't yet offered any specific
Finding better solutions for this large and growing segment
of the population will be critical - not just for their
future, but for California's economic future as well. Students
classified as English learners usually do not have access
to more challenging curriculum that can better prepare them
for college and beyond, such as advanced placement courses
that would give them college credit.
The good news is that once immigrant students learn English
and attend mainstream classes, they often do very well.
Some school districts recognize this and are way ahead of
the game. Long Beach Unified, for example, has a re-designation
rate of 18 percent, twice the state average. Others, sadly,
are even more behind. San Bernardino City Unified and San
Juan Unified both had reclassification rates close to half
of the state average, 5.5 and 5.3 percent respectively.
"I was just at a high school this morning where students
who were reclassified outscored everyone on that campus
by far, in English and math," remarks Elizabeth Hartung-Cole,
Long Beach's English Language Development Curriculum Leader
for grades six through twelve. "Those are kids who
obviously worked hard and had to be disciplined to learn
a second language."
(Kelly Torrance is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute
in Arlington, VA)