Uniform standards urged for reclassifying English learners

School districts have discretion in determining when English learners can be reclassified as proficient in English, meaning they no longer need help in gaining fluency. But the different criteria that districts use and wide disparities in reclassification rates among districts have prompted Sen. Alex Padilla, D-San Fernando Valley, to call for consistency .
Padilla discusses his bill during a televised hearing Wednesday of the Senate Education Committee.His bill, SB 1108, requires the California Department of Education to recommend uniform reclassification criteria, based on best practices, to the State Board of Education and encourages the board to adopt the changes. The bill also would recognize reclassified students as a subgroup for the Academic Progress Index so that the state would be able to track how well these students do over time on the state’s standardized tests.
SB 1108 passed its first hurdle Wednesday with a 5-1 vote in the Senate Education Committee and now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee. It was endorsed at the committee hearing by representatives of several organizations advocating for English learners.
As Padilla noted in an interview, the 1.3 million Reclassified Fluent English Proficient students, as they are called, are nearly as numerous as the 1.5 million English learners in California. Together they make up 45 percent of the state’s students. So what happens to reclassified students ­– the curriculums and services they receive as English learners, how they are reclassified and how well they perform afterward – should be a state priority, he said. Students who are reclassified too soon may lack the fluency in English to do well. Those retained too long in support classes, particularly in middle school and high school, may not acquire credits needed for college.
Padilla has beat this drum before. Two years ago, the Legislature passed SB 1108, a similar version of the current bill, which required  the Department of Education to determine best reclassification practices by Jan. 1, 2014. But the research was contingent on state, federal or private  funding, and the department said the money didn’t come, so the work hasn’t been done.
In the new SB 1108, Padilla resets the deadline to Jan. 1, 2016 without the funding contingency. However, the department has requested that Gov. Jerry Brown add money for the research in the May revision of the state budget, and Padilla said he was optimistic it would be included.
On average, between 12 and 15 percent of English learners are reclassified each year. A report released by the Public Policy Institute of California earlier this year confirmed Padilla’s suspicion that the criteria used by districts varied significantly, resulting in a wide range of reclassification rates.
Based on statewide data, researchers Laura Hill and Margaret Weston concluded that reclassified English learners “not only outperform English learner students, but often do better than English-only students” on state standardized tests, with students reclassified in elementary grades doing better than those reclassified in middle and high school. Higher percentages of reclassified students graduated from college high school and completed courses required for admission to a four-year college, when factors such as poverty were  taken into consideration, according to the study. (The study tracked only children classified as English learners in kindergarten and not English learners who enrolled in later grades.)
They also found that 90 percent of the districts responding to their survey used more demanding reclassification criteria than the State Board of Education guidelines recommend. Districts using more stringent reclassification criteria had lower reclassification rates.
State law requires that district use four factors in reclassifying students:
Overall proficiency level rating of early advanced or higher on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) given annually to English learners
A teacher evaluation, not limited to considering student’s academic skills
Consultation with parents or guardians
A score of at least basic to intermediate basic on the English language arts portion of California Standards Tests
The institute study found that 30 percent of districts required a higher score of proficiency on the English language arts exam, and 9 percent gave a district writing test. Some districts required students to take the state math test as well. And, the report said, “Although state guidelines appear to discourage the use of students’ behavior and motivation in teacher evaluations, many districts report considering factors such as student attendance, behavior, participation, and discipline.”
Those districts that require that students take the math test and score higher on the California English Language Development Test than guidelines recommend reduce their annual reclassification rates by nearly half, the study said. Its conclusion: “There may be room to lower reclassification standards in districts using more rigorous thresholds and still ensure” that reclassified students do well enough that they would not need further academic supports.
Changing conditions
The institute researchers and Padilla agree that the time is right to rethink reclassification. The state has adopted new English language development standards for English learners and will introduce a new version of the CELDT, aligned to the Common Core standards, in 2016-17. The state has discontinued state standardized tests and is transitioning to the Smarter Balanced tests for the Common Core standards.The institute’s Hill said whatever minimum score is determined to be appropriate for reclassification purposes should be required for all districts.
Further, the Local Control Funding Formula provides supplemental money to districts for low-income students and English learners. That creates a potential financial incentive for districts not to reclassify English learners in order to get more money. Uniform reclassification standards could help remove that incentive, as would the requirement, under new the district accountability plan – the Local Control and Accountability Plan – that districts set specific goals for reclassifying English learners. (Since an estimated 75 to 85 percent of English learners are also poor, and would receive extra money even after reclassification, the potential problem may be overstated.)
Padilla’s first version of SB 1108 would have mandated that the State Board adopt regulations incorporating the best practices that the state Department of Education recommends. On Wednesday, at the urging of the staff of the Senate Education Committee, he agreed to encourage, not require, the state board to act.
The state Department of Education has not taken a position on SB 1108. However, in an email, spokeswoman Pam Slater wrote, “There isn’t sufficient research in the field at this time to determine the exact moment an English learner should be reclassified; therefore, it is up to the districts to determine reclassification as compared to the average native English speakers.”
John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him and follow him on [email protected] Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.
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