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English-Learner Reclassifications in Flux in California

Gone are California's old state tests in English/language arts. And three years from now the state's English-language-proficiency exam for English-learners, known as the CELDT, will also be replaced.

Results on both of those tests have long been among the chief criteria used by district-level educators to decide when an English-language learner has reached enough fluency to no longer need English-language-instruction services. In the K-12 world, this is known as reclassification. It's a high-stakes decision for every ELL—and there are 1.4 million of such students in California.

States and districts are held accountable under federal law for meeting annual goals they set for moving students out of ELL status to fluent status. They are also accountable for meeting annual goals for ELLs who can demonstrate proficiency on reading and math content tests. 

So with no state content tests this year and a new English-language-proficiency test (known as ELPAC) on the drawing board for a 2016-17 debut, how California educators determine when a student is ready to exit ELL services is in a state of flux.

First, let's talk about this school year, when nothing will change. Even though the state is using common-core-aligned Smarter Balanced field tests in English/language arts to assess all students in grades 3-8 this spring, districts will still have student scores from the 2013 state ELA test to use in reclassification decisions.

But next school year, there will be no ELA data to use, since the Smarter Balanced field tests are just that: a test of the tests. The field tests will not generate student-level scores.

With some districts and ELL advocates worried about what that would mean for reclassification decisions next school year, the California Department of Education issued a memo in December 2013 saying it would explore "possible measures to be used during the 2014-15 school year."

Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, the director of the ELL support division for the state department of education, told me in an interview this week that local school officials will have to grapple with what criteria they believe is best to use for reclassification as the state transitions to the new assessments.

"Districts have always had to have reclassification policies and one of the things we've been saying is that districts should take this opportunity to revisit their policies and criteria," Cadiero-Kaplan said. "We've heard some good ideas from districts and from advocates. They should be sharing those with each other."

California law currently requires four criteria to be weighed in reclassification decisions:

  • Results on a language-proficiency assessment, including, but not limited to the CELDT;
  • Teacher input on how students are doing;
  • Parent opinion; and
  • Comparison of ELLs' performance in basic skills "against an empirically established range of performance in basic skills" to that of their English-proficient peers. 

The specifics of those criteria—such as scoring thresholds and which assessment results to use—are largely left to the discretion of districts, though most districts have used CELDT results to satisfy the first criteria and scores on the state English/language arts test to satisfy the fourth.

And while many districts have been wondering what assessment results they can/should use in lieu of the now-defunct state ELA exam next year, it seems unlikely state education officials are going to hand them a list of alternatives.

"At this point, we are not in the position of saying to districts that 'this is what you should use' instead of the [California State Test]," Cadiero-Kaplan said.

Lily Roberts, who oversees assessment programs for English-language learners for the state department of education, notes that the state law around reclassification for ELLs makes no mention of the CST.

"Reclassification really is a local policy based on the four criteria in state law," she said.

But for more than 1,000 districts to strike out on their own to rework local reclassification policies that won't be in place for long is a heavy lift, said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, the executive director of Californians Together, a research and advocacy group for English-language learners.

"Districts need something relatively easy to organize and implement knowing that it is temporary," she said.

 

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