Access for English Learners: Revising Identification and Reclassification Policies - Part 3

This blog post is part 3 of 3. For part one click here; for part two click here. When my family immigrated to the United States and settled in Southern California over 20 years ago, I was identified as an English Leaner (EL) when I enrolled in elementary school. As a fourth grader, I and about a dozen other students sat in the back of the class and worked with a Spanish speaking teacher’s aide, while the rest of the class focused on the teacher at the front of the class conducting the lesson in English. My first two years in the California school system are a blur. I have scattered memories of flashcards with a picture and a descriptive sentence that the teacher’s aide would make us recite daily. I remember seeing a long string of C’s and D’s on my progress report cards at parent-teacher conferences. I also remember having to walk to school early in the morning and arrive one hour before the rest of the children to take an ESL class with 30 other sleepy English Learners. I recall being asked by my math teacher in fifth grade to translate for the kid sitting next to me and getting in trouble for talking too much in class when I struggled to explain the lesson to the new arrival. After I made my way through California’s public school system, I returned as an educational researcher. To my dismay, many of the educational practices I experienced in ESL had not changed much, except the EL track was now called ELD. When I asked English Learners about their experiences in those courses, they expressed the same feelings I had as a student, they hated them and couldn’t wait to get out of them. Unlike many U.S. born ELD students I’ve surveyed and interviewed over the years, as a recent arrival, I was not an “overly” identified EL. As the research studies I discussed in parts one and two of this blog entry have emphasized however, my reclassification to English Proficient in sixth grade allowed me to access the college-prep curriculum during early middle school which eventually led to my attending college and graduate school. My intent is not to generalize my personal experience to all English Learners. I realize that identifying and reclassifying ELs are complex tasks, and a simple solution may not work. Goldenberg (2008) has noted that there will probably never be a formula for educating ELs, just as there is no formula for educating students who already know English. I’ve described some of my experiences as an English Learner to highlight the lack of progress in identification and reclassification policies, ELD instruction methods, and the critical need for ELs to access the college-prep curriculum. Recent studies strongly suggest that EL classification practices may not produce valid and reliable classification decisions. The Home Language Survey (HLS) is used to identify language-minority students and the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) is administered to determine a student’s EL or FEP status. Derived from the Lau Remedies, the HLS aims to identify if a student is speaking a language other than English at home. In practice, schools often operate under the assumption that the “home language” is a sufficient indicator of a student’s level of English proficiency as well as of his/her ability to function effectively in English language mainstream classrooms. This assumption, however, ignores the possibility that a student who is not an English monolingual may have a similar level of English proficiency in comparison to a student who is an English monolingual. Requiring only bilingual or multilingual students to demonstrate their English proficiency creates an undue burden and an unfair barrier to surmount in order to enter mainstream curriculums. Similarly, just because a student lacks proficiency in English does not necessarily mean that he/she cannot function effectively in English language mainstream classrooms, even if it does take several years for such a student to reach their highest level of English language ability. Due to ambiguous wording and insufficient items, the HLS is poorly constructed to discriminate between potential EL and non-EL students resulting in the over-identification of students requiring English language services. Over-identification can lead to additional testing before it becomes clear that a student should never have been in the EL “pool” to begin with. To improve the validity of the EL classification system, we need to improve policies and guidelines based on our strongest research about effective practices for teaching ELs. Current barriers include data systems that cannot track students longitudinally or produce analyses of progress by length of time in the United States, and language proficiency levels resulting in lack of information about Long Term English Learners. With a reasonable level of effort, we can enhance the quality of information used to make identification and reclassification decisions. Some of these efforts could focus on using the assessment data available from different sources in the state assessment system to augment our knowledge of students’ English proficiency levels. Recent studies propose the use of multiple measures and informants to determine language proficiency. A parent survey recently developed by Reese, Thompson, and Goldenberg (2008) collects information about the language used with children in specific contexts (e.g., parent speaking to the child, literacy activities), child language use with other adults in the home, language heard by the child in various contexts (e.g., at the park, by the babysitter), and the language most commonly heard by the child. This type of survey provides a rich description of the children’s language environment. Initial findings indicated that while children primarily used Spanish with adults, they spoke much more English among themselves. The survey provides a better picture of English language exposure since it takes into account the range of oral language/literacy practices and activities in the home and other out-of-school contexts (e.g., after-school programs, summer camps, etc.) that provide students with informal opportunities to learn English. While establishing academic standards is important, it is problematic to impose a particular set of standards to language minorities at a level that may not be achieved by some English Only students. The current structure of placing EL students into non-mainstream curriculums in California’s public schools inherently disadvantages language minority students. Once students fail to reach the required proficiency level, they are classified as EL and are placed in EL-specific curriculum. Such tracking inadvertently leads to two major problems that disadvantage EL students. First, EL students may improve their English language proficiency in speaking and listening comprehension with time, but may not make significant progress in reading and writing due to poor instruction and low expectations, causing them to fail to be reclassified into FEP status. Second, the non-mainstream ELD curriculum slows down their academic progress, leading to a significant gap in other academic outcomes. We must continue to carefully examine how an EL students’ scores on the CELDT may be influenced by factors other than their actual English skills and knowledge, such as their low socioeconomic status, lack of exposure to the materials being measured, and/or their poor test-taking skills. The current identification and classification system disproportionately disadvantages Mexican, Central American, Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotian students regardless of their place of birth – foreign born or U.S. born. These students disproportionately come from low SES families and have parents who are recent immigrants with poor English proficiency, low levels of educational attainment, and low literacy skills in their native languages. Imprecise methods of entry into the system, complicated reclassification criteria, and multilayered tracking make the pathway out of the non-mainstream system extremely difficult, keeping a significant number of EL students in low-level tracks, with little or no opportunity to enter the college-prep curriculum. Policies about state-mandated classification and selective testing of language minority students, its criteria for reclassification, and the often arbitrary tracking of these students require substantial changes. This new form of segregation on the basis of linguistic minority status is depriving at least one in four California students of an equal education. The educational trajectory of language minority students, especially Mexican and Southeast Asian EL students, is predestined to educational failure due to unequal opportunity to learn, unequal access to core curriculums, to college-bound courses/programs, and to quality teachers. We have to ensure that English Learners have access to the full curriculum. Providing resources to ELs should begin early and continue through elementary and middle school since early reclassification is associated with improved academic outcomes. Efforts must also focus on why so many U.S. born EL students remain in the system so long without being reclassified. Since the goal of public schools is to provide a quality education to all students, regardless of their home languages, then EL students must be provided with viable opportunities to be placed in the mainstream curriculum.