School & District Management

Is California Identifying Too Many Kindergartners as English-Language Learners?

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 24, 2011 2 min read
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Hi, everyone.

I am delighted to be returning to the Education Week newsroom after spending the last 15 months working for the 146,000-student Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md.

As of today, it will be my responsibility and privilege to contribute to the conversation with all of you about immigrant students and English-language learners in America’s public schools. I hope you’ll join me here at Learning the Language (which, notably, was the first reporter-created blog here at—props to Mary Ann Zehr, my talented predecessor) to discuss the news and issues that impact the more than 5.5 million (and growing) students who are learning English in our public schools.

So it’s fitting that for my first blog post, I turn to California—home to more ELLs than any other state—where an interesting study from a pair of UC Berkeley researchers posits that a state test may be wrongly classifying thousands of 4- and 5-year-olds as English-language learners as they enter school.

Examining statewide results from the 2009-2010 school year, the researchers found that the vast majority of students who were tested were identified as English-language learners. Just 12 percent (or, even more jaw-dropping, 6 percent when results from Los Angeles Unified were excluded) of those who were tested were deemed proficient—results that the researchers found many reasons to doubt.

For starters, the exam, known as the California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, takes two hours for students to complete, according to researchers Lisa García Bedolla and Rosaisela Rodriguez. Two hours? What 4- or 5-year-old can possibly stay engaged with a test for that period of time? This was a test that apparently started out being a half-hour long and has increased in time since it was first given about a decade ago. Prior to 2009, students in kindergarten and 1st grade were only assessed on listening and speaking skills—now they also are tested on reading and writing, according to the California Department of Education.

Another possible flaw in the test: No parents can be present with these young kids while they take it. The researchers also found fault with the four-question home language survey that helps school districts decide who they’ll give the exam to in the first place, saying that too often districts are testing any student whose parent identifies a language other than English as being spoken the most by adults in the home.

The researchers also point out some financial incentives for districts to test these young students for their English proficiency. A school system receives $5 for every kid they assess, and once students are identified as needing English-language services, they become eligible for federal Title III dollars.

Contrast these findings in California with what happened a couple of years ago in Arizona when the number of English-language learners plummeted because the state changed its home language survey. Earlier this year, Arizona ended up going back to its original survey after the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education intervened.

For a localized take on the California study, read this piece from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

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