California community colleges (CCCs) began implementing reforms to English as a Second Language (ESL) pathways in fall 2021—during the COVID-19 pandemic. Mandated by Assembly Bill 705 (AB 705), these reforms aim to maximize the probability of ESL students completing transfer-level English (TLE) within three years of enrolling. At a virtual event last week, PPIC researcher Daniel Payares-Montoya outlined a new report on early implementation efforts and discussed key takeaways with his report coauthors, Olga Rodriguez and Laura Hill.
ESL reform involves moving away from placement tests, which don’t always fully measure English language skills, and shortening ESL course sequences. “Research has found ample room to address the bottlenecks students face, specifically those related to placement policies and lengthy course sequences,” said Payares-Montoya.
Payares-Montoya outlined the progress colleges have made in shortening their ESL pathways: “We find that students in ESL sequences are much more likely to start just one level below transfer-level English (TLE)—close to 20% in fall 2021 compared to 8% in 2016–17.” He also noted that AB 705 requires that entering English Learners (ELs) who have graduated from US high schools be placed in college composition. Because some of these students need language support, a growing number of colleges are offering TLE ESL equivalent courses, TLE courses for multilingual speakers, or ESL corequisite support for TLE.
So far, success rates in these courses are above 70%—higher than rates in traditional TLE courses. But Hill cautioned that it is too early to draw conclusions. “Relatively few students have taken these classes as of fall 2021 because not very many campuses are offering them,” she said. Also, “there hasn’t been enough time to see whether students who pass these classes are having the same success as students who pass traditional TLE.”
AB 705’s recognition that ESL students don’t necessarily need remediation but are seeking proficiency in an additional language is accelerating the growth of these transferrable ESL courses. “This is one of the most promising developments of AB 705,” Rodriguez said. “By offering TLE ESL equivalent courses, colleges are contributing to a key metric in the CCC’s Vision for Success,” she added.
Implementing ESL reforms during a historic pandemic has been challenging, but there have been some upsides. Rodriguez noted that ESL faculty and department heads see the shift to online instruction as the pandemic’s biggest “silver lining,” because it expanded access. For example, shift workers can take online ESL classes during their breaks, and parents can take courses at home. “Providing access to a more diverse group of students was important,” she said.
The PPIC report identifies several ways to bolster ongoing implementation efforts. For example, among colleges using standardized tests, there continues to be variation in the cut scores that determine access to TLE. As Rodriguez noted, “This variation is puzzling because you would assume that one cut score would give you access to TLE at all campuses.” The report recommends careful assessment of placement policies and expanded access to high-quality TLE or TLE-ESL courses.
Another important step is the creation of a database that links California’s educational systems. Efforts are under way to build this longitudinal database—which, Hill noted, is especially critical for identifying and meeting the needs of EL students. Once the PK–12 and CCC systems are linked, it will be possible to track the progress of all US-educated ELs—not just students who enroll in ESL. “We’re really looking forward to a time when that data will be available,” she said.