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Surveying the Landscape of California’s English Learner Reclassification Policy

Summary

All students confronted obstacles during the 2020 school year, but for students learning English, the year presented a distinct set of difficulties. Even as English Learner (EL) students shared in the common struggles around internet-based instruction, the tools to measure their progress in becoming proficient in English became largely unavailable after California schools switched to distance learning in March 2020.

Before the pandemic, policymakers were interested in knowing how California school districts decide when students with the EL designation are ready to exit it through the process of “reclassification.” Although the state Education Code has four criteria to reclassify EL students, there is local discretion on all but one statewide criterion. As required by federal law, the California Department of Education (CDE) is in the midst of standardizing all criteria. Standardizing has many benefits: it may improve the timing for students to transition out of EL services and designation as well as create more equity across districts.

This report shares results from our survey of district policies for measuring English Learner progress and for removing the English Learner designation, before and during school closures. We find:

  • Over 99 percent of districts require that students take the English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC) to be reclassified; over 90 percent apply the required cut point—an overall ELPAC level 4. This is the only criterion that is standardized. However, some districts also layer on additional measures of English proficiency.
  • Most districts assess English Language Arts (ELA) skills in grades 3–11 through the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC). Slightly more than half of districts reclassify with a performance level of “nearly met.” While this might sound as if we expect too little of ELs, over 50 percent of students who speak only English at home do not meet the standard on the SBAC.
  • Districts appear to be involving parents more in reclassification decisions. Efforts to involve parents have improved since our last survey in 2013.
  • Most districts are monitoring reclassified students. Seventy-eight percent monitor reclassified EL students for the required four years, using test scores, grades, and attendance to observe performance.
  • Most districts (56%) have adopted the EL Roadmap. The Roadmap helps districts align accountability plans with guidelines from the State Board of Education. Nearly all districts are aware of the guidance of serving EL students with special education needs. Many districts have plans for assessing English Learners who also have differential learning needs for reclassification eligibility, even if students are not able to sit for the entire exam.

The pandemic may delay state efforts to standardize reclassification. However, in many ways, standardization is a misnomer—the state gives guidance, but districts can layer on more requirements, and many do. To truly standardize policy, we suggest tightening guidance to end this practice.

The pandemic has created two opportunities to improve reclassification. First, districts are now connecting more with families on reclassification decisions using teleconferencing, an approach that may lead to deeper relationships with families even when schools are back in session. Second, districts may learn whether using only the ELPAC test is sufficient for assessment—CDE guidance for 2020–21 suggests districts are “encouraged to prioritize ELPAC scores as the main driver for reclassification” due to concerns about validity and standardization of the other reclassification criteria during the COVID crisis.

Supported with funding from the Sobrato Family Foundation

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