CA, feds in new fight over how to classify English learners

CA, feds in new fight over how to classify English learners

(Calif.) The Brown administration is pushing forward on a novel approach to serving California’s 1.3 million students that are not proficient in English—a strategy that has already been rejected by the U.S. Department of Education.

At issue is a long-standing dilemma facing policy-makers trying to keep track of the progress schools are making in bringing English learners into full proficiency.

Typically, students that have achieved fluency are excluded from the English learner category because, by definition, they are no longer linguistically challenged.

The problem, some academics have argued, is that schools are saddled with a never-ending accountability hole. When only current English learners, or ELs, are isolated as a single group, their performance on test scores almost never improves much.

Under this scenario, local educational agencies have a disincentive to graduate ELs into the proficient classification because doing so diminishes test scores for that subgroup and reduces their ability to meet state and federal performance goals.

To address these issues, California has proposed using a much broader pool of ELs for accountability purposes—both those who have recently achieved proficiency, as well as all those who have not.

In a letter to federal officials late last week, California’s state schools chief, Tom Torlakson, and Mike Kirst, president of the state board, argued that excluding recently reclassified ELs from performance analysis “is more likely to result in an inaccurate portrayal on EL progress toward proficiency.” Especially if LEAs hold back some students to boost school and district results, they said.

“The goal of the (English Learner Progress Indicator) is to assist EL students in reaching English proficiency, which in California is not reached until the student is reclassified,” they said. “Failure to provide schools credit for reclassifying English proficient students is counter to the goal of measuring and reporting this indicator in the first place.”

The letter was sent just a few days after Frank Brogan, an assistant to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, notified Kirst and Torlakson that his office had rejected the state’s request to waive federal rules prohibiting the broader definition of ELs.

California asked for a reconsideration and could potentially request a hearing over the issue.

Brogan did not respond to the nuanced argument from California and instead focused on the undeniable fact that once an EL has achieved proficiency, that student can no longer be considered an EL.

Including recently reclassified ELs in the proficiency calculation and counting them as making progress a year after they are no longer taking that test, he said, is inconsistent with federal law.

“Awarding schools credit for those students who have already exited English learner status, could result in an inaccurate portrayal of the progress of current English learners toward proficiency,” he said.

To support their proposed change, California officials point to a 2013 study from researchers associated with the University of California, Los Angeles and Loyola Marymount.

Their work found that focusing just on those students currently classified as EL, overestimates the achievement gap between mainstream students and those struggling with proficiency. They noted that recent reclassified ELs score about the same as native English speakers on annual state assessments.

They also point out that the current system fails to capture the outcomes of those students that began their academic careers as ELs and later graduated to proficiency. “Achievement levels are low among students who remain ELs at grades seven to 11, but they represent only 40 percent to 50 percent of all students who were initially identified as ELs.”

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