English Learners and the New State Tests
California’s K–12 students struggled on the new statewide Smarter Balanced assessments (SBAC) last year. The results highlight the challenges facing students and teachers as the state shifts to computer-based tests on new curricula with higher standards for achievement. Disadvantaged groups like low-income students and English Learners (ELs) saw much lower achievement levels than their peers, and many of the state’s 1.4 million ELs could have a harder time getting reclassified as fluent in English due to tougher testing.
Reclassified ELs are among the best performing students in the state. They consistently outperform continuing ELs and often have higher achievement levels than English-only students. Policymakers are interested in helping ELs with sufficient English skills transition more quickly out of English Learner programs, increasing their access to academic instruction in other subject areas. In the past year, 11% of English Learners—about 155,000 students—were reclassified. Altogether, almost 2.7 million students—about 43% of the state’s total enrollment—are current or former English Learners.
The State Board of Education’s guidelines for EL reclassification incorporate student performance on the state standards tests and English proficiency tests, as well as parent consultations and teacher evaluations. However, districts’ testing requirements often exceed the state’s suggestions. PPIC research found that the state’s prior assessment (the California Standards Test, or CST) was a significant hurdle for English Learners to clear in order to be reclassified. The SBAC may make this hurdle even higher.
To estimate the percentage of students who might meet their district’s reclassification criteria following the shift to SBAC, we analyzed the results of a PPIC survey on reclassification policies. This survey collected data from 300 districts, which together serve more than half of the state’s students. When moving from the CST to the SBAC, the share of students who would have met their district’s reclassification criteria falls considerably. Overall, between 45% and 64% of ELs would have met their district’s criteria on the CST, but only 16% to 26% would have met the standard on the SBAC.
This chart illustrates the share of ELs meeting reclassification standards by the rigor of their district’s CST reclassification requirement. Districts that required a CST level of Basic for reclassification would see a substantial drop in ELs meeting this standard, with 65% of students meeting the reclassification standard under CST, compared to 21% under the analogous SBAC standard. Districts with more rigorous criteria would see the share of students meeting their reclassification standard drop even lower when moving from the CST to the SBAC—from 40% to 17%.
With the new Local Control Funding Formula and the adoption of the Common Core State Standards, much of California’s K–12 education system is in flux. There are several changes looming for EL reclassification policy as well. For example, federal law now requires that the state establish uniform standards for every district, and the Smarter Balanced tests could make it much more difficult for ELs to meet the basic skills criteria for reclassification. Additionally, recent research suggests that relying solely on the English language proficiency test may suffice to determine whether a student can succeed without additional EL supports. Given the changing landscape and emerging research, the timing is right for state and district educators to reassess EL reclassification policy, ensuring that criteria are set to maximize academic success for both English Learners and reclassified students.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on California Standards Tests 2012–13 results and California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress 2014–15 results.
Note: The CST and SBAC use different achievement levels. We consider CST’s Basic and Proficient as analogous to SBAC’s Standard Nearly Met and Standard Met, respectively. About 45% of districts require that ELs score at or above Mid-Basic to be reclassified. However, due to insufficient data, the share of students who would meet that standard on the SBAC is not shown here.