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English Fluency Standards Ought to Be Uniform in Calif. Districts, Analysts Say

The criteria that California educators use to decide when English-language learners are fluent enough to leave behind special language instruction should be made uniform across the state's hundreds of school districts, a new analysis concludes. 

Doing so, researchers argue, would help move greater numbers of English-learners out of that status in earlier grades, setting them up for more academic success later in their schooling. California educators currently use widely varying criteria to decide when students are no longer English-learners.

The report, released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California, urges the state's education policymakers not only to standardize the definition of English fluency, but also to consider easing the standards that some districts currently require ELLs to meet before they can be reclassified as fluent. 

The researchers looked at 10 years of data from the Los Angeles and San Diego school districts for ELLs from 2nd to 12th grade. What they found was that students who were reclassified as proficient in English by the end of 5th grade performed on par with, or even better than, their native-speaking peers. Their solid academic performance continued through middle and high school, making them as likely, or even more likely, to graduate from high school as students who were never ELLs.

In looking at the two districts—which together enroll roughly 15 percent of the state's ELL population—the researchers concluded that the reclassification standards used by the both districts are more stringent than what state law requires which prevented or delayed "meaningful numbers" of them from being moved from English-learner status.

State law requires that educators must consider an ELLs' scores on an English-language proficiency test—most districts use a test known as the CELDT—and how well such students perform on state content tests in English/language arts. Parent opinion must also be weighed, as well as teacher input. But some districts also consider a student's grades, among other factors not required by the state.

But the two major tests—the CELDT and the state ELA exams—are in flux as the state overhauls its entire K-12 assessment system to align it with the common-core standards.

Because of that massive change, the PPIC researchers argue that the state should consider allowing districts to use the results of a single test to make reclassification decisions. That test, they say, should be the CELDT, which can be used until the state finishes development of its new English-language proficiency test. 

And in making all districts use a common standard for reclassifying ELLs, the researchers suggest that the system would become fairer to English-learners, regardless of where they are enrolled in school, and make it simpler to judge how well districts are doing with educating such students.

California's K-12 policymakers are in the middle of grappling with this issue and school districts there have been anxious for some direction on how to handle reclassification during the transition to new tests. Some of these same questions have also been unfolding in debates among various states that make up the different groups working together on new common-core assessments and English-language proficiency tests.

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