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Federal Opinion

The Best of Students, the Worst of Students

By Joanne Jacobs — September 05, 2008 4 min read
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Our best students and our worst students are likely to speak English as a second language.

In California, children from non-English-speaking homes who learn English fluently before they start school become bilingual stars, outperforming every other group on every academic measure.

Similarly, those who achieve English proficiency in elementary school outperform native English-speakers through the 7th grade. Students reclassified as proficient are more likely to pass the high school exit exam on their first try. They also reach higher: Half of reclassified students, but only a third of native English-speakers, take the sequence of college-prep courses required by the state’s public universities.

They work harder. And they represent a select group that’s jumped through a lot of hoops to graduate from English-language-learner, or ELL, status.

Here, students studying English can’t get out of the language program just by doing well on the California English Language Development Test, which measures fluency in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Districts are advised not to reclassify students unless they test at basic or better on the California Standards Test; districts may also add other requirements such as teacher recommendations, passing grades, a writing test, or math competency. Many students who speak only English wouldn’t qualify.

Some 29 percent of California ELLs did well enough on the language-development test to qualify for reclassification in 2006, but only 9.6 percent were reclassified. Two-thirds didn’t meet the academic criteria.

“Our reclassified kids are our best students,” educators say. “They work harder.”

But what about José Average?

He’s probably in mainstream classes taught in English by a teacher who tries to “differentiate” instruction for children with special needs. She’ll use repetition, rhyme, outlines, and graphics; she’ll try to avoid lecturing and encourage students to give oral presentations. José will attend extra English-language classes—usually 30 minutes a day—to help him develop his skills. (Only 5.5 percent of California’s ELLs are in bilingual programs.)

Unfortunately, many English-learners don’t attend high-functioning schools that monitor students’ progress carefully, intervene quickly when they need help, and expect success for all.

José’s English will improve quickly. But will he learn to read well?

“How many students leave your elementary schools still as ELLs?” Robert Linquanti, a WestEd researcher, asks school administrators. “Of those, how many have been there since kindergarten or 1st grade? How many go on to be reclassified? How well do they do?” Educators are “horrified” by the data, Linquanti says. “They haven’t been paying attention to kids.”

If he’s not reclassified by middle school, José may sit through the same English-language-development classes he took in elementary school, classes designed for newcomers. He may leave the mainstream to take classes taught in simplified English. Expectations are low. Performance is lower. The dropout rate is astronomical for long-term English-learners, sometimes known as “lifers.”

Longtime English-learners—kids who have spent five or six years in the program—probably have learning needs that have little to do with language.

About 40 percent to 60 percent of those who start school in California with limited English skills are never reclassified as proficient. A 2007 report on the state’s exit exam looked at 10th grade ELLs: A majority had been enrolled in U.S. schools since kindergarten or 1st grade; fewer than a third had arrived in the 6th grade or later.

The U.S. Department of Education is considering a change in federal guidelines that could move English-learners into the mainstream much earlier. States would have to use the same criteria to define English proficiency as they use to decide when a student is ready to be reclassified as proficient in English.

Currently, states can make it easy to meet federal progress targets by setting a low standard for proficiency: Look how quickly our kids are learning English! They can also collect more funds for language classes, tutoring, and other services by setting a high standard for reclassification: Look how many kids need help!

A single criterion, if it’s adopted, probably would speed reclassification, even for students who are below average in academic achievement.

Longtime English-learners—kids who have spent five or six years in the program—probably have learning needs that have little to do with language. After all, most ELLs are the children of poorly educated, low-income parents. It’s no surprise when disadvantaged students need extra help. But they may not get the right kind of help if the assumption is that it’s all about English.

Many think the whole funding system needs to be revised to reward effective instruction and to penalize schools that turn out lifelong English-learners. It’s great that so many immigrant students are working, learning, and giving themselves a shot at the American Dream. But we need to get José Average out of the swamp and into the mainstream—quickly.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Best of Students, The Worst of Students

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