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Those Reclassification Rates in California Again


Over at TESOL in the News, I came across a courageous attempt by a reporter to explain what educators mean by reclassification rates for English-language learners. This is the rate that children are reclassified from being English-language learners to being fluent in English each year.

Often, when I ask superintendents or state officials what their reclassification rates were for the previous year, they tell me "I can get that," which I suspect is another way of saying they haven't paid much heed to the statistic.

Not so in California.

In California, because school districts must report the statistic publicly every year, a staff writer of the Morgan Hill Times has the chance to explain what it means that 135 of 1,900 ELLs in the Morgan Hill Unified School District were reclassified as fluent last school year. California school districts report this statistic to the state department of education, which publishes it on its Web site. (Click here to see that 9.2 percent of ELLs were redesignated as fluent in the 2006-2007 school year, for example.)

I recognize that a reclassification rate doesn't tell us a lot in itself about the quality of instruction of a school district. The level of academic preparation of new ELLs coming into a district may differ from year to year, for example. It's also important to know what the criteria for reclassification are.

But I think other states can learn from California in this respect. It's a milestone when a student reaches fluency—and districts should be constantly gauging how well they are helping students to meet that milestone.


Good point.

In an ideal world, reclassification rates would be a useful statistic. But in the highly politicized world of ELL education, it has mainly produced mischief and confusion.

In 1998 Ron Unz used the California numbers to claim that bilingual education had a "95 percent failure rate" in teaching English. Never mind that 70 percent of California's ELLs were not enrolled in bilingual programs at the time. Or that reclassification occurred only after kids had acquired a fairly advanced level of English (e.g., reaching the 36th percentile on language arts assessments for native English speakers). Or that the rate was actually 7 percent (not 5 percent) that year.

The public took these official figures to mean that ELLs were making so little progress in English that it would take them more than 10 years to learn the language. They blamed bilingual education and approved Unz's English only initiative. After all, he promised to teach English in just one year.

Ten years later, as the latest figures attest, the annual reclassification rate for ELLs in California has barely budged -- from 7 to 9 percent. And all the serious studies show that imposing severe restrictions on bilingual education has done nothing to improve schooling for ELLs.

In other words, voters were sold a bill of goods and reclassification rates played a big part in the sales pitch.

Part of the strategy for a Prop 209 win in California was to demonize the minority group that never had the votes to win, thereby uniting the majority. It had nothing to do with improving academic achievement.

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