Do Schools Keep Students at English Learner Status Too Long?

There is concern that schools are financially disincentivized to reclassify English-learning students as having attained fluency. Jill Tucker, of the San Francisco Chronicle, reports on the phenomenon.

In California only 11% of the states one and half million English learning students are reclassified as fluent each year. This indicates roughly a nine year time frame for learning a language, a figure not backed up by experts who claim five years is more appropriate an estimate for the majority of children. Even five years would be widely considered excessive by linguistic experts given that the students are effectively emerged in English for at least part of each day.

In Almeda City Unified only 9% were reclassified as fluent last year despite 62% of the 2,300 English learners scoring proficient in English on standardized tests.

Every district – or even every school – uses different criteria to determine who is fluent.

While only one standardized test determines whether a student is an English learner, schools take into consideration standardized test scores, grades, a teacher evaluation and parent input to determine when a student has reached fluency.

“It means that there are a thousand different definitions of (English learner) across the state,” said Robert Linquanti, a senior researcher in the subject at the Oakland nonprofit WestEd.

Of course it’s not simply differing standards causing the problem, but the fact that schools get approximately $500 extra per English learner to assist them in becoming proficient in the language, but this money disappears once the child reaches fluency. While well-meaning these payments have become vital to many schools following widespread recession budget cuts so the schools are reluctant to reclassify too many students and lose their attached additional funding.

If it was simply a case of schools milking a little additional money then it might not be that urgent of a problem. However, there is concern that the practice is causing harm to the children affected. English learners need to spend a period a day in development classes and this requirement effectively bars them from access to electives and other courses required for university admission, says Christina Wong, a special assistant to the San Francisco superintendent.

And there’s the stigma of the English-learner label, especially if they feel fluent, but never are acknowledged as such.

“They just figure what’s the point and they drop out,” Wong said. “Our end goal is to try to ensure our (English learner) students are achieving. … They’re one of our greatest assets.”

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