Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Report · September 2019

English Learner Trajectories and Reclassification

Julian Betts, Laura Hill, Karen Bachofer, Joseph Hayes, Andrew Lee, and Andrew C. Zau

Supported with funding by the Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education, and the William T. Grant Foundation

More than 40 percent of students in California’s public schools speak a language other than English at home. In the 2016-17 school year, 21 percent of all students, or more than 1.3 million, were English Learners (ELs). When former English Learners are included, the population of “ever ELs” expands to 38 percent of all K-12 students in the state (CDE Dataquest 2017). A key issue for California’s K-12 schools is when to reclassify English Learner (EL) students as English Proficient. If they are reclassified too soon, they may have difficulty handling core academic classes. But if they wait too long, they may be deprived of subject matter they are capable of handling. ELs have historically performed far below proficient English speakers. However, former ELs are some of the strongest performers, sometimes scoring better than native English speakers on standardized tests.

Across California’s public schools, the decision of when to reclassify ELs is guided by district-specific policies. California Education Code 313 (f) establishes four criteria for reclassification procedures, which provide overarching direction on reclassification. However, the criteria laid out in these policies have not been uniform across districts, nor static over time. That is now changing. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the state’s approximately 1,000 school districts must standardize reclassification policies. Thus, it is important to understand how reclassification policies have worked in the past if we are to put in place effective policies that reclassify ELs at the optimal time.

This report describes research carried out over two distinct reclassification eras between the 2002-03 and 2013-14 academic years in the Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD) and San Diego Unified School Districts (SDUSD). Using student-level data and the multiple reclassification policies, we are able to discern whether reclassification takes place at the optimal time for student success. We compare academic outcomes of students just below and just above the threshold for meeting reclassification requirements, and when we find that students’ academic trajectories continue at the same pace, we determine that reclassification policies are set appropriately.

Overall, reclassification criteria appear mostly to have been appropriate, even though reclassification policies underwent changes during the period of our study and varied across the two districts. More specifically, we find

  • In SDUSD, there is no strong evidence that EL students were reclassified either too soon or too late. In other words, students who just met reclassification criteria and those who narrowly missed reclassification later performed about the same.
  • In LAUSD, in a few instances, some elementary school students may have been reclassified too soon, resulting in short-term negative outcomes. There is also some evidence of negative effects on on-time graduation for reclassified ELs at the high school level, but only in the first reclassification era. In all other cases, reclassified students performed neither substantially better nor worse than ELs whose language scores were just below the reclassification threshold. These findings provide useful guidance about what appropriate reclassification criteria might look like as standardized statewide criteria are set.
  • In both districts, it does not appear that student characteristics such as length of time as an EL student, school demographic patterns, or neighborhood characteristics altered the impact of reclassification on students, with some minor exceptions. This suggests reclassification policies need not be adapted for different types of students or school contexts.

Because we find that students fared similarly under two different reclassification regimes in San Diego and that reclassified students in LAUSD and SDUSD fared well even though the districts’ reclassification policies were not identical, this suggests that the context of EL instruction and conditions for reclassified students may be critical to understanding reclassification’s impact. We did not study the details of the English Learner instruction and reclassified student monitoring. Once all reclassification criteria are standardized across the state’s districts as recently required by ESSA, we could see differential impacts from reclassification by district. We recommend that state policymakers establish procedures for monitoring EL students to affirm that the new English language proficiency assessment and any new criteria based on the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) are not so rigorous as to prevent students who could succeed from being reclassified. And, as state law now requires, policies must be adopted to ensure all students, including ELs, receive core academic instruction.


K–12 Education Population