English Fluency Rate Causes Concern
Los Angeles Times

By Seema Mehta, Times Staff Writer

After years of gains, state's school figure for nonnative speakers stays at 47%, and few of those are reclassified for higher-level work.

English proficiency remained stagnant among nonnative students in California last year, and most who did achieve fluency weren't given more challenging course work to prepare them for college, according to a state study released Wednesday.

"We clearly need to look at why this gap is occurring and determine how to address it," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. It's not enough to have English learners  master the language, he said "They also must have full access to the school curriculum to be successful."

California has the largest number of nonnative students in the nation. Last year, 47% of the state's 1.3 million English learners reached "advanced" or "early advanced" proficiency on the California English Language Development Test, the same percentage as in 2004. Until now, students statewide had shown substantial annual gains in English fluency, which was first assessed at 25% in 2001.

O'Connell cautioned against comparing years, noting that fully fluent students are moved out of English-learner programs and no longer tested, while newcomers with fewer English skills enter the system.

"Each year, the population can change dramatically," he said.

Santa Ana Unified School District Supt. Al Mijares noted that his district had seen about 5,000 new students mostly immigrants with limited English skills since July 1.

"When a student enters school with a language other than English, that is a huge challenge," he said. "We'll see scores go up, but I don't think it's going to get to the point that you've dealt with the problem, because that spigot is still on."

But the lack of progress prompted some critics to conclude that the state's method of teaching English was flawed.

"We need materials, we need professional development and we need assessment programs that look at English learners as a core part of the population," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of Long Beach-based Californians Together, a coalition of education and civil rights groups that favor instruction in a student's primary language.

Students in the state's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, nearly mirrored the state figures, remaining at 49% fluency. In previous years, the district had made substantial gains, starting at 16% in 2001.

Rowena Lagrosa, the district's executive officer of educational services, could not explain the lack of improvement. But recently created programs should improve the district's numbers next year, she said.

Meanwhile, the percentage of California students who attain fluency and are "reclassified" and allowed to take higher level classes edged up slightly to 9% in 2005. English proficiency is one of four factors that determine whether a student is reclassified, but educators said the gap between the number of students achieving fluency and the number being transferred out of English-learner status highlighted a problem.

"We can do better," O'Connell said, adding that he would urge school districts to review their reclassifying procedures and academic support programs.

School officials say some of the gap may be caused by teachers who are reluctant to reclassify fluent children, fearing the students will no longer get supplemental English instruction and fall behind.

"Whenever you have a special group of students needing extra help, there are those who think a longer time for that help is really important," said Assistant Supt. Lynn Winters of Long Beach Unified, which had a reclassification rate double the state average. But "the bottom line is if a student is redesignated, there's a follow-up plan, a monitoring plan for every student."