April 18, 2008

Commentary:

California’s Newest English Speakers Test For Success

By Don Soifer

It is often said that if you want something done, ask a busy person. Like, for instance, children who began school with limited or no English language skills, yet who succeed in learning enough to be redesignated as proficient in English, and moved into the mainstream.

In California, these children, termed Reclassified — Fluent English Proficient (R-FEP) students, are among the highest achievers in the public education system — as has proven the case in other states as well. They regularly outperform state averages for all students, having done so on the standardized CAT/6 test in all subjects in each of the past three years (the test is given to third and seventh graders).

In fact, they even outscored students who are native English speakers, in every subject and grade level, over the same period. Actually, the two groups tied in reading in 2005 at the seventh grade level. But, even then, students who had previously been English learners outscored native English speakers by 11 points in spelling.

The process of students becoming proficient in English and being redesignated into the mainstream happens slowly in California. Statewide, less than 10 percent of English learners are redesignated annually. In other words, most of them will remain in bilingual education, or other special language programs, for over 10 years. By contrast, redesignation rates in Florida and New Jersey are more than three times higher.

Why does this process happen so slowly in California? Experts have cited factors including funding formulas for schools that are tied to numbers of English learners, high-stakes testing incentives and arrangements, and a general belief by many educators that children should be held back until they are deemed ready, even if other criteria have been met. Success rates, and policies, vary significantly from one school district to next.

California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell has called for school districts to reconsider their policies with the goal of increasing their reclassification rates. Studies by both the California State Auditor and the Legislative Analyst’s Office have also found California’s progress in this area too slow. The Auditor’s report noted that only half of all English learners beginning California schools in kindergarten will be reclassified by the sixth grade.

Sacramento County’s Elk Grove school district, the state’s third largest, has consistently had among California’s highest annual redesignation rates for English learners over the past several years. Elk Grove’s R-FEP seventh graders have also regularly posted among the states’ best CAT/6 test scores in reading, language arts, math and spelling. Elk Grove’s student population includes slightly fewer English learners and students receiving free and reduced price lunches (a figure often used as a proxy for family income) than the rest of the state.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles USD has tripled its redesignation rates over the past 4 years, to well above the state average. Its CAT/6 test scores for former English learners, however, stayed generally the same at the seventh grade level, while third grade scores fell only slightly. Los Angeles has emphasized early English proficiency through policy changes and teacher training.

Long Beach and Glendale are two other large school districts that have been ahead of the state average for English learner reclassification rates. Long Beach’s R-FEP students have tested slightly below state averages on the CAT/6 test. In Glendale, R-FEP scores have been just about on par with state averages, although consistently above average in Math.

There is no more important factor for the assimilation of these children into America’s educational and economic mainstream than English proficiency. Most of them are not even immigrants themselves: two-thirds of English learners belong to the second or third generation in their family to live in this country. Those who become proficient in English in elementary school face far better chances of avoiding academic failure than those who do not. And for those that do, as these test scores indicate, their success can be very convincing indeed.

Don Soifer is an education analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. He can be contacted at soifer@lexingtoninstitute.org.

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