How Good is Good Enough? Moving California's English Learners to English Proficiency

Joanne Jacobs
Lexington Institute
May 29, 2007

A third of California's elementary students are classified as English Learners (ELs) and, by the rosiest estimate, only 60 percent of them will be reclassified as English proficient by seventh grade. The remaining 40 percent, according to Joanne Jacobs, will remain at serious risk of "falling behind in school or failing to master the skills needed for success in middle and high school." The reason for this, Jacobs suggests, is not necessarily that they haven't mastered English, but that their district has continued to classify them as ELs regardless of their English skills, putting them on a track which deprives them of educational opportunities available to their "proficient" peers. Blame here lies with the classification system, as well as the unintended consequences of a well-meaning law. California funds ELs 13 percent higher than non-EL students, but once they master English the extra funding goes away. Thus, districts have an incentive to continue classifying students as ELs even when they're not. Also problematic is the lack of statewide consistency in English proficiency cut-off scores; some districts set the bar too high, keeping students "on an ‘EL track' that leads nowhere." Standardizing the California English Language Development Test and California Standards Test cut-scores, Jacobs argues, would help clarify what level of English skill should be expected from ELs. All good points, but this paper's focus on the pitfalls of EL classification practices leaves one wondering how much ELs are actually learning. Jacobs takes it for granted that they're doing better than their EL labels would suggest, but presumably that question is still up for debate. The paper is available here.

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