Regardless of how it's accomplished, it seems clear that English
proficiency must be acquired to succeed academically in Arizona.
The debate about how best to support and guide school districts' efforts
to educate English-learners has consumed the current legislative
session, and for good reason. The decisions that the state makes about
such education will have a profound effect on a growing student
Estimates provided by ThinkAZ show the number of English-learners
enrolled in our schools reached almost 175,000 in 2005, which is higher
than the figure that was previously reported by the state. That
population has grown by nearly 20 percent since the 2000-01 school year.
The disparity in the number of such students reported is a reflection of
the difficulties that school districts contend with to track students
and keep up with the complexities of technological changes in the
state's central reporting system, while at the same time dealing with
issues of data accuracy and reporting. Ultimately, these reporting
issues make it difficult to compile and analyze data about the
In an effort to inform the debate, ThinkAZ worked with six school
districts around the state to compile a data set of students that could
be used to make meaningful observations about the English-learner
population. The data tell pieces of an intricate story about such
academic performance, mobility and how well these students are
progressing toward English proficiency.
In 2005, Arizona students enrolled in Grades 3-8 took the state's
standardized test (AIMS). Results from the AIMS test reveal that
English-learners are being outperformed in every subject and grade by
In fact, such students are nearly the poorest-performing student group,
second only to Arizona's special-education population. A closer
examination reveals that English-learner performance on AIMS improves
each of the first three years they participate in such programs, but
performance begins to decline for those who remain in the program for
more than three years.
This suggests that English-learners who continue in a program after
three years are either failing to reap the benefits of the program in
the first three years or, after three full years, the programs no longer
benefit those who haven't reclassified.
Students enrolled in the programs take an annual Stanford English
Language Proficiency Test. Students who pass the Stanford test are
reclassified as fluent English proficient.
An analysis of students who pass the Stanford test reveals that children
who are proficient in English have higher AIMS achievement scores. In
fact, performance on the Stanford test is highly correlated with
performance on AIMS: The higher the Stanford test score, the higher the
For example, English-learners in Grades 3-8 tend to perform the best on
the oral portion of the Stanford test and the most poorly on the reading
portion. Not surprisingly, reading is also the lowest-achieving subject
on AIMS for this group.
This suggests that being proficient in English, as currently measured by
the Stanford test, is a good indicator of academic success on AIMS. This
is important because it is likely that eventually these students will
have to pass AIMS to graduate high school.
Mobility appears to play a small role in English-learner performance: On
average, such students in Grades 3-8 attend more schools and are
enrolled in school for a shorter amount of time when compared with
fluent English proficient and non-English-learners.
The length of time enrolled in school and whether an English-learner
attends more than one school seem to be factors of such academic
success, as measured by AIMS. But even the least-mobile English-learners
perform well below their English-speaking classmates.
As we learn more about the factors that influence academic success among
ELL students, we will be able to craft public policy that can address
the specific needs of this population. Initial observations suggest that
acquiring English is a must if such students are to succeed in Arizona's
public education system.
Brian Owin is a senior research analyst at ThinkAZ, a nonpartisan
public-policy institute in Arizona.