Dilemma over English learners

English language learners currently get about 8 percent per student in extra funding, says the Legislative Analyst’s Office. That amount would more than quadruple in six years, to 37 percent, if the Legislature adopts Gov. Brown’s weighted student formula, phasing in substantially more money for every poor student and each English learner.

That potential bonanza has advocates for English learners ecstatic and anxious. They see it as a long-overdue opportunity to help struggling students. But many also agree that without better ways to measure English learners’ progress and to make sure districts actually spend the money on English learners, there will be incentives to label too many children as English learners and then to keep them in that status for too long – doing more harm than good.

“Just to give money based on characteristics of one type or to an ambiguous program with little or no program goals is to court disaster because (the money) will just go on and on and on forever,” Sen. Jean Fuller, a Republican who was a superintendent of the Bakersfield City School District, testified at a hearing on the potential impact on English learners of a weighted student formula. “And the kids lose. They don’t get the proficiency they need fast enough.”

There appears to be a consensus that some English learners are already stuck in the system, although there’s disagreement as to why. Nearly one in four students in the state are English learners, with 70 percent in elementary school. In some districts, like Santa Ana, more than 80 percent of English learners were born in the United States. If parents, filling out a four-question survey, responded that they most often speak to their children in a language other than English, their children were required to take the California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, often as kindergartners.

In a study issued last year, the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley concluded that CELDT is prone to misidentification, with only 6 percent of kindergarten students taking it in 2009-10 being classified as English language proficient. Since CELDT has never been administered to English-only kindergartners for comparison, it’s hard to know if the test is an accurate language measure or is a proxy for poverty and other deficits at home.  The language survey is not able to distinguish students who are truly bilingual, says Associate Professor Lisa Garcia Bedolla, co-chairwoman of the Center for Latino Policy Research.

Inconsistent approaches to redesignation

But once identified as an English learner, a student is likely to stay an EL for years; an average of only 11 percent  are redesignated annually as fluent in English and no longer needing extra help, which can include pulling a child from regular class for extra English support.

Robert Linquanti, project director for English Learner Evaluation and Accountability Support and senior researcher for the California Comprehensive Center at WestEd, said that a reasonable target for reclassification should be about 20 percent each year, or one in five.

The state auditor a few years back concluded that there were financial incentives for retaining students as English learners, but Linquanti said that districts with low reclassification rates tend to have poor procedures for monitoring, and administrators don’t make reclassification a priority.

State Sen. Alex Padilla agrees. “There’s no smoking gun memorandum” that he’s seen discouraging teachers to reclassify English learners as proficient. The problem, he says, is that every district has its own redesignation criteria; they’re all over the map. That’s why Padilla, a Democrat from Los Angeles, is sponsoring two bills dealing with English learners, both of which passed the Senate Education Committee last week.

SB 1109 is a broad bill; it would establish a master plan for English learners, looking at issues of initial classification, best practices and techniques for instruction, parent involvement, and the long-term learning needs of English learners.

SB 1108 deals with redesignation specifically. It would require districts and county offices to report the redesignation criteria they use to the state Department of Education, which would analyze them and report back to the Legislature which methods are the most effective for determining fluency in English.

“There needs to be uniformity and consistency,” Padilla said in an interview. The Legislature would determine whether the criteria would be mandatory for local districts after it sees the results, he said.

The State Board of Education guidelines recommend using a combination of factors for determining redesignation: English proficiency scores on CELDT; scores on the California Standardized Tests, which students take in English; grades; teacher evaluations; and parental views. Students are considered proficient in English if they score early advanced or advanced on CELDT, but only 38 percent of students who test that high are actually redesignated. Districts come up with their own weights and throw in grades in science and math and district benchmark tests. Some teachers, it’s been said, consider absenteeism and other subjective factors.

Financial incentives can cut both ways, said  Chuck Weis, Santa Clara County superintendent, in testifying  at the  hearing, organized by Padilla,  on a weighted student formula and English learners. Middle schools and high schools tend to push English learners through the pipeline too soon, he said, because they don’t have enough bilingual teachers, and the amount of state aid isn’t enough  to cover needs of English learners in upper grades.

Funding beyond redesignation

Assemblymember Chris Norby, a Republican from Northern Orange County, sides with those who believe too many children are classified as English learners (he cites his own daughter as one) and then become “stuck in English language learning and cannot get out.” His bill, AB 1767, would consider scoring proficient or advanced on California Standardized Tests and a B average “prima facie evidence” for redesignation. Those students – only a few thousand per year by one estimate –  clearly have academic fluency to succeed in regular English classes, he said.

Norby’s bill so far has failed to get out of the Assembly Education Committee, but it includes an idea that Linquanti and other experts in English learners like: It would extend funding for English learners two years after they were reclassified as fully English proficient. This is critical, advocates say, because redesignation is a minimal standard; it doesn’t prepare students for rigorous academic English found in middle and high school courses. The money could also be used for monitoring students’ progress after redesignation– something that’s not done now.

Gov. Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence anticipated possible perverse incentives with extra funding for English learners. The committee suggested gradually cutting back funding over time, and then eliminating it for an English learner after seven or so years.

Some of the concern about the disincentive to redesignate may be overstated, because the Department of Finance estimates that 74 percent of English learners also come from low-income households. Even if these students are redesignated as fully English proficient, without extra funding,  they would receive an extra 37 percent for poverty – same dollars, different label.

Flexibility without accountability?

Brown is proposing to fund the weighted student formula by ending nearly all categorical programs, the specially protected programs for restricted purposes. Districts would have near total flexibility to spend money as they see fit. The governor is calling for full flexibility immediately, with weighted student funding phased in over six years. That worries advocates for English learners, because Economic Impact Aid, the biggest source of state aid for English learners, would be one of the eliminated categoricals. Thus, there’d be no guarantee that districts would continue to spend the extra money on English learners – now or when the weighted formula is ratcheted up.

Padilla agrees that is a problem and says he will present accountability requirements if Brown doesn’t include them in the budget revision next month. “I want to ensure that gaining flexibility in how to use funds does not relieve districts of the obligation to improve on English language instruction and to demonstrate progress in moving students toward proficiency.”

The debate over funding and classification coincides with other major changes. By summer’s end, the State Department of Education will finish recommendations for a new set of standards for English learners that aligns with the Common Core standards. New standards, in turn, will require a new assessment to replace CELDT. California must decide whether to join with other states in creating the test or go it alone.

These are a lot of moving parts, not all of them in sync. All the more important, Padilla argues, to create a master plan for dealing with changes and to include uniform standards for tracking English learners’ progress.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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