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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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How California Screens English Language Learners (and What It Might be Doing Wrong)

Published:  October 19, 2011

A new study suggests that the state of California may have massive problems in the way it identifies English Language Learner students in its public schools. In California, where one quarter or 1.6 million students are English Language Learners, this misidentification could be costly for schools and students alike.

The report, by UC Berkely Graduate School of Education researchers Lisa Garcia Bedolla and Rosaisela Rodriguez, suggests that the mechanisms used to identify children for English-learner status may not be flagging the right students. Once children are identified for ELL-designation testing via Home Language Surveys, the authors assert, the exam they are given to establish ELL status is not developmentally appropropriate for many, leading to over-identification for ELL services.

No Child Left Behind requires that children be screened for English proficiency and given English language support if needed, but the misidentification of English Language Learners, over-identification of ELL's for special education services, and consistent low-performance of English Language Learners on standardized tests all indicate that many states have yet to design well-functioning systems for children who are not proficient in English.

In order to identify children who will be screened for ELL services each year, states require teachers to send a Home Language Survey to each student's parents. California's survey asks four questions, including, "Which language does your child most frequently speak at home?" and "Which language is most often spoken by adults in the home?" Any answer referring to a language other than English flags a child for a standardized test used to determine whether or not a child will receive an ELL designation.

Bedolla and Rodriguez suggest that in California, too many children sit for this exam because of the second question on the Home Language Survey: "Which language is most often spoken by adults in the home?" If a child lives with both parents and grandparents, for example, it's entirely possible that the child speaks mostly English with their parents, but that the parents and grandparents communicate with one another in Chinese.

Assuming a district hasn't experienced a sudden demographic change, the proportion of students who are flagged to take the ELL-designation test should be roughly correlate with the proportion of English-learner students in the district, Bedolla and Rodriguez suggest. In over half the districts sampled for the study, however, the rate of ELL testing was 20 percent higher than the total percentage of English learners, indicating that too many children were being flagged for testing in the first place, because of their parents' answers on the Home Language Survey.

Home Language Surveys appear straightforward, but conflicts surrounding the surveys are becoming more frequent. While California may be over-identifying ELL students, other states may be denying ELL services to students who need them: When Arizona streamlined its Home Language Survey in the summer of 2009 to ask only one question -- "What is the primary language of the student?" -- the number of ELL students in the state dropped by over 30,000 in a single year. As Early Ed Watch reported at the time, the state settled an investigation with U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice soon after and reverted to its original survey.

In other cases, providers may ask many questions on a Home Language Survey, but use only some of them to refer children for ELL designation assessments. This is because providers frequently know too little about what mix of languages children hear at home, or whether parents are encouraging a child to learn only English, or are encouraging them to speak their home language as well. Gathering this information about kindergarteners and first-graders, who are less likely to explain their language backgrounds to teachers on their own, can be useful to both ELL and mainstream teachers.

After California's Home Language Survey "triggers" students for ELL-designation testing, only 12 percent of children who take the exam qualify as English proficient, indicating that the test may be too challenging for kindergarteners and 1st graders to understand, according to the researchers. A major problem with the California test, they assert, is that it takes two hours to complete -- too long of a time to expect kindergarteners and first-graders to sit still. The test also requires students to read and write words such as "apple," which may be too challenging for many children between the ages of four and six. If this is the case, there's a good chance that English-proficient children might take the test and fail.

Additionally, those administering the test are often not specially trained or certified to do so-all factors that lead the authors to conclude: "it is unlikely that districts are targeting their scarce language resources as effectively as possible." Most troubling, of the 37 districts surveyed, only 15 percent had an appeal structure in place for teachers or parents to use if they felt children were misidentified as English learners. If too many children are being referred for testing that is too difficult for legitimately proficient English speakers to pass, it is likely that there are children sitting in ELL classes who do not need to be there-and who don't have a route to challenge their ELL designations.

It's true that ELL instruction is costly and, in many areas, scarce. For true English Language Learners, the pre-K and elementary years are key: Children who are well-supported are more likely to learn English fast and move into mainstream classrooms for the rest of school, while others struggle in years of special ELL instruction or, most inefficient of all, bounce between ELL and mainstream services throughout their school years. States have a long way to go when it comes to capitalizing on their existing ELL services and expanding them where needed. But first they need to be identifying the right students for special services, using more sophisiticated Home Language Surveys and more developmentally approrpriate ELL designation assessments.

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