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Calif. English-Learners Improve Language-Exam Scores

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 31, 2004 4 min read
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Though the scores of English-language learners continue to rise on California’s English-proficiency test, the rate at which school districts deem students as fluent in English has barely budged in more than five years.

On the most recent California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, 43 percent of the state’s English-language learners scored at the top two levels— “early advanced” or “advanced"—thus meeting one of the state’s recommended criteria for English fluency. Thirty-four percent scored at those levels in 2002 and 25 percent in 2001, when the test was administered for the first time.

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View the accompanying chart, “Increase in English Proficiency.”

The scores are of interest to educators nationwide because California has 40 percent of the nation’s 4 million English-language learners, and all states are now required to administer tests of English-language proficiency under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The positive results of this year’s CELDT indicate that California’s standards-based instruction is working for all of our students,” the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Jack O’Connell, said in a press release.

But state officials last week were puzzled why the positive results on the language test haven’t translated into a higher proportion of California students being reclassified as fluent in English.

While the percentage of students who scored early-advanced and advanced in English on the test rose from 25 percent to 34 percent from 2001 to 2002, for example, the percentage of students that districts, on average, reclassified as fluent in English stayed essentially the same: In the 2001-02 school year, the rate was 7.8 percent, and in 2002-03, it was 7.7 percent. Moreover, the average reclassification rate for California has changed little since its 1997-98 level of 7 percent.

Geno Flores, the deputy superintendent for assessment and accountability for the California Department of Education, and Deb Sigman, the department’s director of standards and assessment, say they don’t have the data they need to explain why districts haven’t found an increasing proportion of students have mastered English.

Reaching the highest two levels out of the five on the test, Ms. Sigman noted, is one of four criteria the state recommends for reclassifying students as fluent.

The other criteria are scoring “basic” or higher on the English-language arts section of the California Standards Test, parent consultation, and teacher evaluation. But school districts are not bound by those recommendations, she added.

Scores for English-language learners on the section of the California Standards Test that is critical for reclassification have also improved recently.

Scores on both tests taken by English-language learners in the Los Angeles Unified School District reflect this trend. On the English-development test, 42 percent of the district’s English-language learners reached the early advanced or advanced levels this year, up from 29 percent the previous year, and 16 percent the year before that.

Local Reclassification

But this school year, the district reclassified only 4.2 percent of its English-language learners as fluent in English. That’s double the rate in 2002-03 of 2.1 percent, but much less than the rate of 10 percent for the prior school year.

Esther Wong, the assistant superintendent for planning, assessment, and research for the 700,000-student district, said reclassification rates haven’t risen because schools needed time to adjust to changes in the assessment and reclassification criteria.

Los Angeles’ criteria for reclassification match those recommended by the state with one exception: student grades in English and mathematics play a big role. Ms. Wong speculates that a low grade in a single subject—say a D or F in math—may be holding some students back from being reclassified.

By contrast, as of this past January, the 140,000-student San Diego Unified School District stopped using student grades for English-fluency reclassification, according to Debra L. Dougherty, a program manager for English-language learners for the district.

While students’ scores on the crucial tests have steadily improved, the district’s reclassification rates went from 8.2 percent in 1999-2000 to 6.2 percent in 2000-01 and then to 10.4 percent in 2001-02.

Ms. Dougherty said the rates fluctuated in part because educators scrambled in 1999-2000 to reclassify students since they were uncertain about what kinds of new issues would be raised by the English- development test.

Educators may be reluctant to reclassify some students who are on the brink of fluency, she added, because they want to make sure the children can get extra help in the language as long as they need it.

“The CELDT and now the No Child Left Behind Act have put the focus on our kids, and any focus on our kids is a good thing,” Ms. Dougherty said, pointing out that student progress is being weighed more carefully than in the past. “They are no longer just identified [as English-language learners] and then go on their merry way.”

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