Lessons in language
Republic columnist
Jul. 7, 2006

New hope about teaching English-learners

Robert Robb

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 writing exams.

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

the better.

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 thereafter.

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 passing score.

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 suggest otherwise.

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

catch up.

Reach Robb at robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com or (602) 444-8472. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Read his blog at robbblog.azcentral.com.