Testing suggests greater fluency

Schools may be understating the number who have learned English

About one in four California students labeled an English learner may actually be fluent, far more than the number schools say are ready for mainstream instruction each year, according to results of the state’s first uniform test of English skills.

Last year, California schools redesignated just 9 percent of their English learners fluent, including 7.5 percent in Orange County, based on a range of criteria set by each district.

The results of the first California English Language Development Test, or CELDT, come at a time when schools are under pressure from state and federal monitors to improve instruction of English learners, including fluency, or “redesignation,” rates. Newport-Mesa Unified and Santa Ana Unified have both come under federal and state review recently over concerns that English learners are falling through the cracks.

“They (the schools) should take a look at (the students). There’s no question,” said John Mockler, executive director of the state Board of Education. “That’s about 21/2 times the (fluency) rate.”

The official declaration of fluency is more than a personal milestone for students, officials say; it goes in their records to determine what classes they will take, whether they can learn at the same pace as native speakers, and sometimes whether they are put on track to university.

Critics say the number of children classified as English learners also affects the schools, which can receive hundreds of dollars extra in state and federal funding to help each of those students. There are 1.5 million English learners in the state, about 25 percent of students. In Orange County, 150,653 of the half-million students, or 30 percent, are classified as not fluent.

“They are given financial incentives to not redesignate students,” said Ron Unz, co-author of Proposition 227, a 1998 initiative that all but ended bilingual education.

School officials counter that they try to redesignate as many students as are ready – but avoid moving students too soon because they can fall back without extra help.

“Why in the world would you hold a child back? If a child has all the qualifications to be redesignated and be successful, why would you not want to do that?” said Gail Reed, La Habra’s English-learner program director.

Educators caution that the CELDT test is new and not the only measure districts should use to determine whether a student is fluent in English. Still, other measures have raised similar questions about whether students are being properly monitored. Last year, for instance, about 28 percent of English learners in Orange County scored above the 35th percentile on the Stanford 9 reading test – around the cutoff many districts use to declare students fluent – but just 7.5 percent were redesignated.

A sample of seven Orange County districts revealed similar gaps between the percentage of students who scored high on the CELDT test and the percent declared fluent by their schools. In Anaheim Union High School District, for example, 40 percent of the students scored high on the test, but 11.4 percent were redesignated last year.

In the past, school districts have been criticized for failing to test all English learners, which the state tried to correct last year by ordering districts to give the CELDT to all students in grades 1-12. Mirna Burciaga, a parent who filed a complaint that led to federal and state reviews of Newport-Mesa Unified School District, said two of her own children were declared not fluent in English even though they were born here.

“The problem is that many parents don’t know what the word “redesignation” means,” she said. “But I think more parents are starting to wake up.”

The state has also fielded criticism for failing to set a uniform standard for fluency, which officials say they are studying now and hope to release by the next school year. The state is starting by having districts use this test as the first check to determine fluency. Currently, state law allows districts to decide who to redesignate, using their own mix of Stanford 9 scores, grades and teacher opinions.

Critics say different policies could lead to a child being labeled fluent in one district but not in another.

Concepcion Tenorio, 17, said she was in an intermediate class at Western High in Anaheim as a freshman, but was put in a beginning English class when she transferred to Orange High. The next semester, she was moved to an advanced class.

“When you get it in one school, and you change to another school, you have to start all over again,” said Tenorio, now a junior with straight A’s.

State lawmakers tried in 1999 to give districts an incentive to improve the fluency rate by promising them $100 for each student who is declared fluent using this new test. But now that the test is here, money has run out, and the state is cutting the budget.

Under state law, schools are supposed to inform parents of their children’s fluency level and that they are being tested. Schools with large numbers of English learners must also have parent-advisory committees on the issue.

However, state reviews of schools have found violations across California. A recent state review of Santa Ana Unified revealed that scores of students are flunking their classes. Some had been declared fluent too soon and were thrust into mainstream classes without extra help. A review of Newport-Mesa found that students were not reviewed on a regular basis for fluency. Both districts are now working on improvement plans.

Most English learners in California, about 83 percent, are Hispanic. Although state officials said language should not be a barrier to Advanced Placement, gifted programs or college tracks in high schools, Hispanic students are underrepresented in all of these areas statewide.

Some schools are working to get students into higher-level classes, such as Orange High’s program to help struggling students get into college and Anaheim Union’s efforts to test more English learners for gifted classes.

“It’s something you have to be so careful of,” said Principal Bob Lewis of Orange High. “If you are not tuned into it, you hold them back because of the language.”

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