IT recently emerged that many Los Angeles students placed in classes for English-language learners in the early elementary grades were still taking such classes when they entered high school. That’s not a knock on the students, but a damning indictment of how government at all levels has sold them out and botched the delivery of English-language instruction.
A USC study found that nearly three out of 10 Los Angeles English-learner students spent years in English-language-instruction courses without ever being re-classified as English fluent. The study didn’t address why administrators kept students in English-learner classes for so long. The reasons, however, are no mystery.
Many English learners actually score at the proficient level on the state test used to determine English fluency. In the Los Angeles school district, 45 percent of first-graders taking the 2008-09 test scored advanced or early advanced, the two levels signaling proficient English skills. The state says that scoring at these levels, plus the basic level on the state’s English subject-matter test, is sufficient for a student to be re-classified as English fluent. Local school districts, however, are permitted to tack on their own requirements. Thus, Los Angeles also requires that students earn specified grades in subject-matter courses.
Even if students meet both state and local requirements for re-classification, a report by the Bureau of State Audits found many instances of students still not being re-classified as being fluent in English. An amazing 62 percent of students in the bureau’s review met state and local criteria for fluent status, but weren’t re-classified. This travesty is due in part to the perverse incentives for school districts to keep students classified as English learners and not move them on to English-fluent status.
The state Legislative Analyst’s Office has found that districts have a financial incentive for keeping students classified as English learners because federal and state programs distribute funds based on the number of students eligible for those programs. In other words, the more students classified as English learners the more money districts receive from Washington and Sacramento.
Finally, keeping English-fluent students in the English-learner category helps schools meet the adequate-yearly-progress requirements for English learners under the No Child Left Behind act. NCLB requires subgroups such as English learners to make annual progress toward grade-level proficiency in math and English language arts. Keeping English-fluent students in the English-learner category increases the chances that schools will meet federal goals.
The California Department of Education has found that the probability of an English learner being re-classified as English fluent after 10 years in California schools is less than 40 percent. The department attributes this appalling situation to flawed re-classification methods “that likely under-represent success and ignore English learners’ progress over time across the spectrum of linguistic and academic performance.”
There are two ways to address this problem. One is to change the various laws that create the perverse incentives that keep students in the English-learner ghetto. Even if successful, however, such efforts would require a long and protracted struggle, stunting the academic growth of current English learners for many more years.
A better solution would be to give parents a school-choice voucher that would allow them and their children to exit immediately from public schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere that fail to transition students to English fluency quickly. Parents could then send their kids to private schools that better meet their demand for faster transitions.
The USC study found that students who moved out of English-learner classes by the third grade scored up to 40 points higher on standardized tests than students who remained in those classes. If the public schools want to imprison students in English-learner classes, then vouchers are the keys that could unlock those prison doors for parents and their children.
By Lance T. Izumi Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and senior director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute and the co-author of the 2008 PRI report “English Immersion or Law Evasion: A 10th Anniversary Retrospective on Proposition 227”