Lessons in language
Jul. 7, 2006
New hope about teaching English-learners
There's some more hopeful news about English-learners in Arizona schools, this
time from a recent study by ThinkAZ, "What Does Arizona's ELL Population Look
Like, and How Are They Doing."
The think tank took a detailed look at English language learner students in six
districts around the state. The results of current ELL students on the state's
achievement tests were very low compared with native speakers. Of course, it's
not entirely surprising that students still learning English wouldn't do well on
tests given in English.
The hopeful news, however, was how well former ELL students who had tested
proficient in English were doing.
The test scores of former ELL students were two to three times higher than those
who were still in ELL programs. Moreover, the gap between former ELL students
and native speakers substantially narrowed.
For example, for Grades 3 through 8, current English-learners scored an average
of just 22 percent on the state's reading test, while native speakers averaged
77 percent. Former English-learners, however, averaged 65 percent.
The gap between former English-learners and native speakers was actually highest
for reading. For math, the gap was 9 percentage points and for writing it was
only 3 percentage points.
Although it wasn't in the study, ThinkAZ researcher Brian Owin was kind enough
to break out this data by individual grade level for me. The gaps between former
ELL students and native speakers were narrowest in the early grades. In fact,
for third grade, former English-learners scored substantially the same on the
reading exam as native speakers, and actually scored higher on the math and
That gap, however, reversed and grew steadily with each passing grade.
So, the hopeful news is that, apparently, once English-learners learn the
language, they do relatively well in school, although the earlier they learn
Apparently, also, the quicker they learn the better. ThinkAZ's study indicated
that students showed improvement on the state's achievement tests for the first
three years a pupil was enrolled in ELL programs, but a decline in achievement
The ThinkAZ study also suggests that concerns about how the state is scoring
the English proficiency test may be overstated. The state's proficiency test
includes oral, reading and writing sections. However, to test out of ELL
programs, a passing score in each section isn't required, just an overall
This has led some to fear the state was taking students out of ELL instruction
too early. The subsequent academic success of such students, however, would
The hopeful news from the ThinkAZ study follows the valuable insights found in a
study by the Center for the Future of Arizona and the Morrison Institute. In
"Beat the Odds," these think tanks looked at a handful of schools with average
test scores at or above the state average and with a majority of Latino and
low-income students. The most important common approach seemed to be constant
assessment and constant refinement of individual student lesson plans.
The findings from these two studies could help inform the debate over English
language learner programs and funding, which has resulted in a litigation
impasse between Gov. Napolitano and the Republican Legislature.
Napolitano has proposed a large increase in annual per-pupil funding of
$1,289 for English-learners. This, however, creates a huge perverse incentive
for schools to label students as English-learners and keep them so
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has done a good job of
standardizing proficiency testing, so the opportunity to game the tests has
diminished. Nevertheless, the incentive should be to move kids along quicker
in becoming proficient, not to drag it out.
On the other hand, constant assessment and individualized lesson plans are
time-consuming endeavors. Undoubtedly teachers could benefit from fewer students
or more classroom assistance, both of which are expensive endeavors.
So, perhaps a compromise would be a figure closer to Napolitano's than the
Legislature has yet offered, but only for three years, after which the ThinkAZ
study shows diminishing returns from ELL programs.
Meanwhile, schools are still tending to leave ELL students in regular
classrooms, rather than the dedicated, intense English instruction environment
voters intended when they approved Proposition 203 in 2000.
Many educators believe that Proposition 203 was a mistake, that English-learners
do better when their native language is used extensively as
a bridge while English is being learned. Nevertheless, voters deserve a
good-faith effort to implement the policy they adopted, and thus far they have
not gotten it.
So, the extra funding should be made available only for programs certified by
the superintendent as being Proposition 203 compliant.
Such a compromise probably isn't possible until the litigation runs its course.
Nevertheless, researchers are finding some hopeful paths toward meeting
Arizona's English-learner educational challenge, if the politics can
Reach Robb at firstname.lastname@example.org or (602) 444-8472. His column
appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Read his blog at robbblog.azcentral.com.