Statewide test scores show that Arizona ranks as the worst state in the country in serving English-language learners, with two-thirds of Arizona’s English-language learners failing a statewide benchmark exam, AzMERIT.
Only 2% of English-language learners passed the language arts section, and only 6% passed the math section of the exam. Despite the appalling results, however, state lawmakers have shown little initiative in improving the struggling system. According to Van Velzer of the Associated Press, about 70,000 students are enrolled in Arizona’s English-language learning programs.
“To know that they’re English-language learners obviously means they’re not proficient in English, so to give them a test in English and be concerned or confused as to why they may not perform like their native speaking peers would be a bit silly, quite frankly,” says Kelly Koenig, Deputy Associate Superintendent of the Arizona Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition Services.
Years of data accrued by the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that gains for English-language learners are possible. From 2003 to 2015, the math achievement for English-language learners increased by 5% from 9% to 14%, and these students have also made gains by 1% in reading scores, from 7% in 2003 to 8% in 2015. These gains are slight, but real. Nonetheless, all of the above scores are higher than those achieved by Arizona’s English-language learners.
Alexis Huicochea of the Arizona Daily Star reports that there is a consensus among Arizona policymakers that most English-language learners are undocumented, which provides them an excuse to refuse reforming English-language education. However, the overwhelming majority of Arizona’s English-language learners (80%) are legal United States citizens.
Under state law, English-language learners are placed into a daily four-hour block of language instruction that focuses on reading, writing, grammar, and conversation practice. Students are segregated from their English-speaking peers so that teachers can incorporate content from other subjects, like science and history, into their lesson plans. Still, the curriculum is not informed by contemporary language pedagogy. Statistics show that, after seventh grade, any gains made by Arizona’s English-language learners in the fourth grade are erased.
Many claim that the underlying reason why the inadequate system will remain in place is a matter of politics. “We have essentially had a discriminatory situation in this state against folks born in poverty including people here legally and without documentation,” Farley said. “We don’t always get legislation made from the perspective of what’s best, we get legislation made of what fits the ideology of the person making it and in the case of education, that should never happen.”
Indeed, Arizona’s English-language learning programs are considerably underfunded. Arizona school districts receive an extra $600 for each English-language learner, but independent analysts believe that each student requires $1,400. The discrepancy in funding may account for the fact that Arizona’s English-language learners are three times less likely to graduate high school than their peers statewide.
Moreover, Arizona graduated the lowest rate of English-language learners in the United States in the 2013-2014 school year.