English learners' education held back
February 21, 2006

Shirley Dang


High school senior Aksonexay Ratanasith arrived in the United States from war-torn Laos at age 3.
The Richmond boy excelled in elementary school, but in junior high was placed in classes with recent immigrants. He scored well on fluency tests, he said, but remained in English development classes until his sophomore year at Kennedy High School.
Now a senior, he takes database applications and leadership class. He still doesn't understand why he wasn't allowed out of the English learner program sooner.
"E! LD was holding me back," Ratanasith said.
For the past two years, nearly half of the state's 1.3 million English language learners have tested fluent on state exams, but less than 10 percent made their way to mainstream classes, according to the state Department of Education.
The reason: State policies encourage districts to keep students in English-learner programs rather than reclassify them, according to recent studies by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, the Legislative Analyst's Office and the Bureau of State Audits.
Schools receive more money for students who speak a primary language other than English. Federal laws demand that English learners score increasingly higher on standardized tests over time, meaning districts that keep high-achieving students from leaving the program are more ! likely to clear those hurdles.
"There's kind of a perverse incentive not to reclassify," said Christopher Jepsen, who studies English learners as a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute.
Critics say the system -- riddled with inconsistencies and set up poorly for monitoring -- essentially cheats English learners of a proper education.
"It's troubling," said Elisabeth Cutler, an analyst at the Oakland nonprofit Education Trust-West, which advocates for improving minority and English-learner education.
"Are students being stuck in those EL programs so that they cannot really excel in English classes?"
Different standards
While voters approved a ballot measure in 1998 that severely restricted bilingual education, the state continues to serve a large number of English language learners with special classes, curriculum and instructional aides.
According to a June state audit, the department spent more than $630 million in state and federal money in 2003-04 to supplement education for English learners. They represent roughly a fifth of the state's 6 million students.
In deciding who can be reclassified as mainstream, districts follow four state guidelines. Students must pass a fluency test. Districts must also consider scores from a separate standardized English exam and consult teachers and parents.
Beyond that, California schools may set the bar as high as they deem fit.
The Pleasanton school district asks that students score at least proficient on state English tests, one level beyond state requirements. Kindergartners in the Antioch school district who do not test as fluent must stay in the program until the end of third grade. The Mt. Diablo school district looks at math and English test scores and demands a C-grade or better in class. West Contra Costa students must write an essay.
Administrators say districts created these extra hoops because students who pass as fluent on a bubble sheet do not always perform in trigonometry or comparative literature.
"Sure they're conversational," said Wayner Miller, Mt. Diablo's assistant director of curriculum and instruction. "But can th! ey read and write anywhere near grade level? No."
Students who leave the program too soon risk floundering in mainstream classes, said Carmen Garces, the Antioch school district's coordinator of English language learner services.
"! In the same way that they should not be taken out of math, they should not be taken out of ELD," Garces said. "English is the basis of success in school."
Policy analysts point to a more systemic problem: Schools routinely neglect to move students into more rigorous mainstream classes.
A Bureau of State Audits report in June showed that 62 percent of 180 students reviewed in eight school districts, including San Francisco, qualified for reclassification but remained in English learner classes. Often districts do not adhere to their own redesignation policies, the audit says.
"Although school districts generally appear to identify English learners appropriately when they enroll new students," the audit reads, "they do not do as good a job of ensuring that English learners who meet minimum school district redesignation criteria are removed from the English learner population."
At the state level, the Department of Education does not monitor whether students eligible for reclassification ever make it out of English-learner classes. Schools do not document why students are not reclassified.
The Legislative Analyst's Office reported last month that each year, the number of students scoring low on the fluency test shrinks as the number scoring as advanced increases. Essentially, there is a "build up" of capable students among the ranks of English learners, said Paul Warren said, which helps school districts meet achievement standards, said Paul Warren of the Legislative Analyst's Office.
Local school administrators bristled at the idea that they purposely would hold back students to bring in cash, especially since English-learner services generally cost more than districts receive from federal or state sources.
"To say that we're getting too much money, it's just an outrageous assertion," said Mt. Diablo's Miller.
Solutions come slowly
To solve the problem of low reclassification rates, the state auditor's office recommended creating a statewide standard for deciding when English learners should switch to mainstream classes. The Legislative Analyst's Office said the state should reward districts for improvements on fluency tests.
Another option is to switch to a system like Arizona's, whe! re students either pass the test and head to mainstream classes, or fail and stay English learners. The problem is that no study shows whether students learn better when they go to mainstream classes sooner or later.
"If there were (data)," Warren said, "it would make life easier for policy makers."
Shirley Dang covers education. Reach her at 510-262-2798 or sdang@cctimes.com.