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Study finds change in California testing policy helped English learners in Los Angeles

Matt Barnum | February 18, 2016

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classroomRemoving services for high school students learning English may have harmful effects on test scores and graduation rates if done too quickly, according to a study conducted in Los Angeles. The research, published in October in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, provides a cautionary note to policymakers hoping to swiftly move students to English proficiency.

The researchers — Joseph Robinson-Cimpian of the University of Illinois and Karen Thompson of Oregon State — examined the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) where California’s English-language proficiency exam became more difficult in 2007, making it harder for students who were considered English learners to be “reclassified” as fluent. The change meant that on average students spent more time considered English learners and receiving the support services associated with that status. The state made the test more vigorous in response to educators’ concerns that students learning English were being reclassified too soon.

The authors found that high school students who narrowly passed the old test and stopped receiving the language services — such as courses specifically designed for students learning English with teachers certified to support English learners — had lower test scores over time and were less likely to graduate, compared with those who narrowly failed the test and thus retained those services.

But when the new policy was enacted — that is, when it became harder to pass the English proficiency exam — these effects disappeared; there were no differences in outcomes for students who just hit or just missed the cut-off. The authors say that this suggests LAUSD’s new policy is preferable because it means students are less likely to stop receiving language support services before they are ready.

“From a policy perspective, the findings suggest that although reclassification can have adverse effects on students, policymakers can realign criteria to ensure more successful transitions,” the authors stated. This means that efforts to shorten the time that students learning English receive support services — for instance, a 1998 voter-passed referendum in California — should be approached with caution.

In an interview, study author Robinson-Cimpian said the he wouldn’t generalize the results beyond LAUSD, but said schools and districts should not remove English learner status before it’s clear students are ready. This might mean making it more challenging to pass the language proficiency test, as California did.

No impact on lower grades

Interestingly, the more difficult exam didn’t impact elementary or middle school students’ performance. That may be because formal classification statuses did not really affect how students were taught in the classroom, according to the authors. In most cases students remain in the same class, taught by the same teacher, even after they’re deemed proficient in English.

In comparison, high school students’ classification in some cases determines which courses they take.

“In high school [English learners] are often tracked into a variety of separate courses, including both [English-language development] courses and [English learner] only courses,” the authors wrote. This might explain why, in high school, the timing of when students changed statuses made a significant difference.

In a statement, Kathy Hayes and Hilda Maldonado of LAUSD’s Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department, said they weren’t surprised by the results of the study. “We fully support the idea that assessment, curricula and services provided to English learners be in alignment,” they said.

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