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English Learners Reclassified as Proficient in Elementary School Are Top Academic Performers

A Simpler, Statewide Policy Could Ease Students’ Transition

SAN FRANCISCO, May 6, 2014—English Learners who are reclassified as proficient in English by the end of fifth grade perform as well or better academically than native speakers—and they continue to do so through middle and high school. These are the key findings of a report released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). It is based on a study of the two largest school districts in California, Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified. These demographically diverse districts together serve about 15 percent of California’s English Learners.

The PPIC researchers were able to follow students in both districts over 10 years, from second grade through the 12th-grade year. They found that English Learners in both districts who finished second grade in 2002 and were reclassified by the end of fifth grade did as well or better than native English speakers on state standardized tests. These reclassified students were as likely or more likely than native speakers to make on-time progress from one grade to the next. And they were as likely or more likely to graduate from high school.

“In both Los Angeles and San Diego, students reclassified in elementary school are among the best academic performers,” said Laura Hill, PPIC policy researcher and co-author of the report. “We don’t see evidence that they falter at higher grade levels relative to their classmates who are native English speakers.”

English Learners make up nearly 25 percent of California public school students. Those who are reclassified as English proficient do much better academically that those who are not, leading policymakers to ask how quickly English Learners should be reclassified and whether the criteria for reclassification should be standardized across all districts in the state.

This issue has taken on added urgency because California is implementing a major overhaul of K–12 standards and the testing system. The state is also changing the way it funds schools. Under the new Local Control Funding Formula, districts with high numbers of English Learners receive additional money. Many policymakers have long been frustrated with the pace at which English Learners are reclassified and are concerned that the additional funds directed toward them under the new formula might increase district incentives to delay reclassification.

The Los Angeles and San Diego districts have different criteria for reclassifying English Learners, but the factors that predict success for English Learners are remarkably similar, the report finds. The two standardized tests used to reclassify students—the California Standards Test (CST) and California English Language Development Test (CELDT)—are each strong predictors of performance on middle school standardized tests and the high school exit exam. School grades in English are somewhat less useful predictors.

The report notes that the current process for reclassifying English Learners is quite complex. Students must not only reach thresholds on two different tests, but individual districts are able to set their own requirements, which can be quite different from the state’s guidelines and from those of other districts. The researchers conclude with a list of policy recommendations to help ease the transition to new policies. Among them:

  • Consider allowing districts to reclassify students on the basis of a single test. The CST is no longer being used in California schools, but the CELDT can reliably be used as the sole assessment for reclassification until new tests are implemented.
  • Reconsider the use of reclassification criteria that are more rigorous than the State Board of Education recommends. Both Los Angeles and San Diego use criteria for reclassifying students that are more stringent than the state’s. The researchers find evidence that these additional requirements prevented or delayed the reclassification of meaningful numbers of students.
  • Consider a uniform standard for reclassification across the state’s school districts. A standard set of criteria could improve fairness for students and make it much easier to evaluate districts’ successes with English Learners. This is vitally important as the Local Control Funding Formula is implemented.

“As California implements new standards, testing, and a new funding formula, it makes sense to establish simpler, statewide reclassification requirements,” said co-author Julian Betts, PPIC Bren fellow and professor of economics at UC San Diego. “This would allow districts to concentrate their dollars on their lowest-performing students—without slowing the academic progress of English Learners who are performing well enough to be reclassified in elementary school.”

The report is titled Pathways to Fluency: Examining the Link between Language Reclassification Policies and Student Success. The other co-authors are Belen Chavez, analyst at the Harris Economics Group; Andrew Zau, senior statistician at the San Diego Education Research Alliance at UC San Diego; and Karen Volz Bachofer, director of the San Diego Education Research Alliance at UC San Diego. The report is supported with funding from the Donald Bren Foundation and the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund.

ABOUT PPIC

PPIC is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.

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