Arizona Highlights Smattering of ELL Data

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 05, 2008 2 min read
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Arizona papers have reported recently on state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne’s claims that the state’s new method of educating English-language learners is working (here and here.) The state is enforcing a mandate this school year that ELLs must be taught in separate classes for four hours a day to learn specific English skills, such as vocabulary and grammar.

I reported and wrote a story about the new approach, “Arizona Still Grappling With Balance on Mandated ELL Instruction,” for this week’s Education Week. I didn’t, however, report on Mr. Horne’s press release because I received it as my story was going to press, and I felt it was based on only very limited information about ELLs in the state. I wanted the chance to look into the claims.

This week, Margaret Garcia Dugan, the deputy superintendent for the Arizona Department of Education, answered some of my questions in a telephone interview. She didn’t have any data, though, to add to that in the press release.

Mr. Horne says the new approach is working because three school districts that implemented it last school year have experienced huge increases in their reclassification rates for ELLs (that is the rate at which they redesignate them as proficient in English).

Ms. Dugan acknowledged that Mr. Horne didn’t actually compare the reclassification rates in those school districts with those of other districts in the state that hadn’t yet implemented the model. So, I surmise that some other districts could be doing as well with their reclassification rates as the ones cited in Mr. Horne’s press release. I also wonder if the success of the three school districts might be attributed to other factors. Ms. Dugan, for one, thinks that Arizona’s creation of English-language-proficiency standards and the aligning of them with content standards has helped to improve the education of ELLs.

She also acknowledged that state education officials haven’t examined whether the students who were reclassified as proficient in English in the three districts are, in fact, doing well on the state’s regular tests of math and English.

I’d gotten this last question, actually, from Patricia Gandara, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. She wrote in an e-mail to me: “Is there any evidence that this increase in the rate of reclassification is resulting in better academic outcomes for the reclassified students? English-language-arts test scores? Grades in class?” Ms. Gandara also said she’d want to know the grade levels of students who are being reclassified and how they are doing on regular English tests, suspecting that at lower grades, where demands are lower, students might do okay, but not as they move to higher grades.

Ms. Dugan said Mr. Horne’s press release is based on ELLs in elementary school.

Changes in Arizona’s policies in recent years, by the way, do make it easier to compare districts in that state with one another than in some other states. For at least three years, said Ms. Dugan, the state board of education has required school districts to reclassify ELLs if they score “proficient” on the state’s English-language proficiency test.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.