Credit: Lillian Mongeau for EdSource | Second graders Jayden Lew and Giselle Ortega work on their Spanish grammar at Edison Elementary School in Glendale, where they are enrolled in a dual language immersion program.
Oct 22, 2015 | Researchers studying a group of California school districts are highly critical of the state’s system for providing services to English language learners in a report released this week.
Citing disparities in results and strategies among districts, professors from Stanford and other universities called for creating common, statewide criteria for determining who English learners are and for determining when they no longer need extra help. They also recommend:
- Stronger monitoring to ensure that English learners have access to core academic classes and demanding content, the lack of which contributes to a lower graduation rate and readiness for college.
- Better preparing new teachers and training existing teachers to understand second language acquisition and how to incorporate language instruction in all content areas.
- Ending the general ban on bilingual education and creating incentives for districts to expand bilingual and dual language immersion programs, which researchers said can be more effective than English-only instruction in teaching English fluency. An initiative to rescind Proposition 227, the 1998 general ban on bilingual education, will be on the ballot in 2016.
The report incorporates findings of three school district–university research partnerships: in Los Angeles Unified, in a collaboration of seven small and medium-sized districts known as the English Language Learner Leadership Network, and in an unnamed large urban district working with Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. The report was published by Policy Analysis for California Education, or PACE, an education research and policy organization. Ilana Umansky, an assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Oregon, was the lead researcher. Several professors at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, including Sean Reardon and Kenji Hakuta, were co-authors.
Seminar on findingsProfessor Ilana Umansky, the lead author of the report on English learners, and her colleagues will present findings on Friday, Oct. 23 from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Room 242, the Department of Rehabilitation, 721 Capitol Mall in Sacramento. Go here for more information.
One key finding was the rate at which English learners were identified as learning disabled. In six of the seven districts in the English learner network, long-term English learners – those receiving language services for six or more years – were also classified in need of special education at two to four times the rate as non-English learners. In Napa Unified, 40 percent of long-term English learners were co-labeled special education students. This may indicate that the districts can’t distinguish between English learners with academic needs and those with learning disabilities, the study said.
About 23 percent of California’s students are English learners, the largest number of any state in the nation. By most academic measures – including graduation rates, dropout rates and college attendance – they lag other students in the state. In the initial results of the Smarter Balanced standardized tests in the Common Core standards, only 11 percent of English learners were designated as meeting requirements in math and English language arts – far below the state average.
But the researchers noted that the transition to new academic standards and additional funding for English learners through the Local Control Funding Formula present opportunities for improving education for the state’s 1.4 million English learners, including longer school days for some students.
There will also be a new English proficiency assessment, the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California, or ELPAC, aligned to the Common Core. Replacing the current California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, it will be used to determine when English learners can be reclassified as fluent in English and no longer needing language assistance. The report says it’s critical to set the proficiency score at a level that ensures students will be able to handle academic core content. This was not always the case with the CELDT, it said.
The ELPAC should be used as the sole measure for redesignation statewide, the researchers said. Districts have used additional measures, such as grades and proficiency scores on other state tests, in which the scores held back some students no longer needing sheltered English instruction in classes with less demanding content. There also has been too much discretion in determining reclassification, the report said, and a tendency in some districts to prematurely redesignate middle and high school students.
The report also said that the initial English learner classification is overly broad and does not reflect home conditions, family education and wealth, which are predictive of how quickly an English learner will likely become proficient. The classification rates vary significantly among districts, the report said. It also noted “troubling achievement gaps among English learners of different linguistic and national origins,” with 90 percent English learners of Chinese origin in one district reclassified by middle school, compared to 65 percent of Hispanic English learners.
Citing the need to expand access to core academic instruction, bilingual instruction and better prepared teachers, the report concluded, “Changes along these lines would not necessarily require large new investments, but they could yield substantial benefits for large numbers of California students.”
Opportunities and Outcomes of California’s Students Learning English: Findings from School District–University Collaborative Partnerships
Recent policy changes in California’s education system have opened up a unique opportunity to improve educational opportunities for the state’s 1.4 million English learner students (ELs).
The implementation of new state standards including new English Language Development standards will require major changes in teaching and learning for all students including ELs, while the Local Control Funding Formula gives districts that educate large numbers of ELs additional resources to improve the services that they provide. To take full advantage of these opportunities policymakers and educators should rely on the best available evidence to shape state and district policies and to inform classroom instructional practice for EL students.
In this policy brief Ilana Umansky and her co-authors review research findings from three university school district research partnerships and present recommendations for changes in policy and practice to expand opportunities for EL students.
They draw three main conclusions.
First, California must improve the ways in which students who need language supports are classified and reclassified, in order to improve alignment across districts in the state, and alignment between classification and services.
Second, state and local officials must become more systematic in how data on ELs are collected and used, by tracking students’ progress over longer time periods and by including all students who were ever ELs in accountability metrics.
Finally, and most importantly, the state must improve ELs’ educational opportunities in school by expanding access to core content, bilingual instruction, and well-prepared teachers.
Changes along these lines would not necessarily require large new investments, but they could yield substantial benefits for large numbers of California students.