Test data tell sad story about English-learners
Arizona Republic
Mar. 5, 2006

ThinkAZ Senior Research Analyst

Brian Owin http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/viewpoints/articles/0305owin0305.html

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 population.

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 English-learner population.

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 non-English-learners.

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 AIMS score.

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.