California's English Learner Scores Soar, But Reclassification Numbers Lag Behind
By Kelly Torrance
The Lexington Institute
Arlington, VA

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 solutions.
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)

 

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