California’s Lost Students

"English Learners" caught in perverse system

Walk into a kindergarten class in a California school. Out of 18 students, six are “English Learners.” One comes from a middle-class Asian immigrant family. The other five are the children of poorly educated, low-income, Mexican immigrant parents. Like more than 90 percent of California English Learners (ELs), they’re being taught in English in a mainstream classroom.

Flash forward to high school graduation: Linda, the Asian-American girl, walks across the stage to get her diploma. Reclassified as proficient in English in third grade, she’ll be a pre-med at University of California at Davis. Maria, proficient in fourth grade, waves at her proud family. She’ll start at community college, and then transfer to a Cal State campus with hopes of becoming a teacher. Juan, reclassified in fifth grade, collects his diploma. He’ll take auto mechanics at community college.

Carlos, Anna and Roberto stayed ELs in middle school, speaking English fluently but testing poorly in reading and writing. Carlos will try to earn missing credits and pass the high school graduation exam in summer school. Anna dropped out in 10th grade. She works at Wal-Mart and cares for her baby. Roberto, who gave up in 11th grade, joined his father’s gardening crew. They are California’s lost students.

Only 9.6 percent of ELs were reclassified as proficient in English in 2005-06. That’s up since 1998, when the state’s voters passed Proposition 227, which limited bilingual education. But it means many English Learners don’t learn English well enough to complete high school and qualify for college, trade school or an apprenticeship.

Only 60 percent of EL students who began school in California as kindergartners will be reclassified as proficient by seventh grade, estimates a study by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

It’s worse, concludes a study on Prop. 227’s after-effects by the American Institutes for Research and WestEd: After 10 years in California schools, less than 40 percent of ELs will be reclassified as proficient.

If students don’t leave EL status by the end of elementary school, their prospects diminish, researchers agree. In middle school, they may be placed in separate EL classes with lower expectations. In high school, they’re even more likely to end up on the “EL track,” which leads nowhere. The drop-out rate is enormous: In Los Angeles Unified School District, 71 percent of ninth-grade ELs are gone by 12th grade.

“Is keeping kids EL more likely to give them services that will let them excel? Or will it keep them in a watered-down curriculum?” asks Robert Linquanti, WestEd researcher who co-authored the 227 study.

By some measures, English Learners are learning English. Nearly half of ELs pass the California English Language Development Test (CELDT), which measures speaking, listening, reading and writing, with an “early advanced” or “advanced” score. Yet only a quarter of students who pass CELDT are reclassified, concludes a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Some don’t meet the state’s second criteria, which calls for scoring “basic” or better on the English Language Arts portion of the California Standards Test. Others qualify by state criteria but don’t meet higher standards set by their districts. Some meet all the criteria and are kept as ELs anyhow.

Some students score a 4 or 5 on CELDT year after year without moving on. “You get kids who are sitting around forever, languishing,” says Jeanette Ganahl, a program consultant for the education department. “If they pass CELDT, they have adequate skills in English. They should be able to compete in the classroom.”

But many educators disagree. They think it’s better for students to remain ELs, eligible for extra help, until they perform at the same level as their native-English-speaking classmates.

Because the bar is set high, ELs who’ve been reclassified often outscore English-only students.

Perverse incentives encourage districts to hang on to ELs. Combining state and federal funds, an EL is worth an extra $860, the Legislative Analyst estimates. If a student becomes proficient, the money goes away.

State and federal testing also creates an incentive to keep high-scoring students as ELs: Retaining the most successful pumps up scores. However, on federal and state accountability measures, California schools count reclassified students as ELs until they’ve achieved proficiency for three years on state tests.

That leaves only one significant perverse testing incentive: A state rule credits districts for students who advance a level each year on CELDT or who stay at the advanced level on CELDT; this rewards failing to reclassify fluent students.

Administrators say they’re not motivated by money or scores in their EL policies, but it’s clear some districts work harder than others to reclassify eligible students.

Among large districts, reclassification rates vary widely: In Glendale Unified, 19.7 percent of ELs reach proficiency annually. Alvord Unified, a predominantly Hispanic district in Riverside County, reclassifies 1 percent. By the state’s minimum standards, 61 percent of Alvord’s fifth graders could be reclassified. But Alvord requires higher test scores, math scores and C’s in all subjects for two semesters. The reclassification rate for fifth graders is close to zero.

Many districts with high reclassification rates also set extra criteria. The difference seems to be that they follow students’ progress closely.

Long Beach Unified, with many low-income Hispanic EL students, boasts a 15.2 percent reclassification rate. Twice a year, schools are sent a list of students who meet state criteria for reclassification. “We don’t let them forget who’s eligible,” says Rosemary Perry, research director. If the school team decides the student isn’t ready for reclassification, they send a “why it’s a no” report back to the district justifying their reasons. “We can compare the eligibles versus the actuals and look at what’s holding up their progress,” says Perry.

Statewide, seven percent of the state’s ELs are in bilingual classes. Whether students are taught in English or partially in their home language makes little difference, concluded the 227 report. While students in bilingual classes made slower progress on CELDT, these tend to be children who start with weaker English skills and come from more disadvantaged families. When that’s factored out, language of instruction didn’t affect results. Quality of instruction did.

In “Similar EL Students, Different Results,” EdSource found a huge gap — 256 points — in Academic Performance Index scores for EL students in California elementary schools with similar demographics. Effective schools for English Learners — and all learners — hire good teachers and invest in up-to-date learning materials, analyze data to see who is learning and what lessons aren’t getting through, link curriculum to standards and keep expectations high for all students.

I talked to principals and administrators at schools and districts where most ELs succeed to research a paper for the Lexington Institute, “How Good is Good Enough?” All talked about improving reading and writing instruction, using data, linking to standards and setting high expectations.

It’s simple: Teach well and the kids will learn. OK, not so simple to do. But worth doing.

Flash forward again: Carlos is a computer tech, Anna is a nurse, Roberto is an apprentice carpenter — because they learned to read and write competently in English in elementary school.