The Reclassification Debate

The Reclassification Debate

This analysis is presented in response to policy recommendations regarding the reclassification of English Learners from Limited English Proficient (LEP) status to Fluent English Proficient (FEP) status. The State Board of Education (2005) has established multiple criteria for reclassification, including students’ scores on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) and measures of academic achievement on the California Standards Test.

How is reclassification defined in policy documents?

The California Department of Education “California English Language Development Test (CELDT) Assistance Packet for School Districts/Schools (February 2005) gives the following definition of reclassification: “…Reclassification is the process through which students who have been identified as English learners are reclassified as fluent English proficient (RFEP) when they have demonstrated that they are able to compete effectively with English-speaking peers in mainstream classes.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office Report (January 2006) contains the following language:

“Reclassification Process: English learners are reclassified as “fluent” when they have sufficient English skills to learn in a regular classroom with extra assistance and perform in academic subjects at approximately “grade level.”

How do educators define reclassification?

It is important to keep in mind the meaning of reclassification for EL students and the impact this change in category has on the student him or herself, on the EL students as a subgroup in schools under the federal and state accountability requirements, and on schools’ and teachers’ ability to provide appropriate and effective instructional programs and services for these students to continue their growth in English and their academic achievement.

There has been considerable discussion and debate regarding reclassification criteria since the early 1970’s when identification and reclassification (also termed redesignation) criteria for English Learners was first required under federal law. Among second-language educators, reclassification is seen as the point at which we can safely say that a lack of English proficiency and/or skills in academic English are no longer an inhibiting factor or an obstacle in a student’s continued academic progress. It is impossible to determine statistically a point along the continuum of language development and academic learning at which students reach this level of academic and English language skill. This decision requires judgment based on the expertise of educators who analyze and interpret data from various sources, including their observations of a students’ academic growth and performance over time. The reclassification process also requires and solicits the cooperation and consent of parents whose child will be affected by the reclassification decision.

What concerns have been raised among policymakers about reclassification criteria?

The Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) Report (January 2006) states that according to the CDE, gains in the proportion of EL students that scored in the two highest performance levels of the CELDT are evidence that students are learning English more quickly than in the past, and therefore represent “improvement” in EL education in California schools. The following concerns are expressed in the regarding reclassification, most particularly in regard to the CELDT score criteria applied in the process:

EL students are not learning English quickly enough. Students who are “still learning English” in the upper elementary grades will not be prepared for middle school and high school and will struggle academically in secondary schools.

There is a “build-up” of EL students who score in the Early Advanced and Advanced levels on the CELDT but who have not been reclassified as FEP.

School districts that set “high standards” for reclassifying students will have more high-performing students in the EL subgroup, thus giving schools that have higher standards for reclassification an “inappropriate advantage” in meeting the performance target under AMO 1 of the No Child Left Behind accountability requirements.

Schools have “fiscal incentives” for delaying reclassification of EL students because they continue to receive federal Title III money and state Economic Impact Aid allotted on a per student basis and/or according to the numbers of EL reported in the district.

What is the public’s perception of reclassification and CELDT data?

Other concerns about reclassification standards have also been raised in the media. The LA Times (February 17, 2005) stated the concern that students who are classified as EL even though their CELDT scores indicate that they are “proficient” in English are being denied educational opportunities because of their EL status, such as access to Advanced Placement courses. There is political pressure on the California Department of Education (CDE) to raise the annual reclassification since the public has been led to believe that it is an accurate indicator of the schools’ success in teaching English. This is in part the result of the way in which the reclassification rate was politicized during the Proposition 227 campaign. However, the CDE has also contributed to the public misunderstanding of the CELDT test data. Each year the California Department of Education put a “good news” spin on the CELDT scores by creating the perception that increases in the percentages of students scoring at the higher CELDT levels were indicators of the rate of English acquisition. Consequently, the CDE is under pressure from the media and the public to both raise the annual reclassification rate and to show higher percentages of EL students scoring at the EA and A levels on the CELDT each year, two objectives that may cancel each other out.

What are the limitations of the CELDT results?

A lack of understanding of language assessment and instruments for determining English fluency contributes to misperceptions among policymakers and the public regarding the meaning of the CELDT data and their implications for EL education. These are important points regarding the characteristics and limitations of language assessment in general and the CELDT in particular:

Language assessments and proficiency tests are designed to describe and categorize a population of students who are not proficient in a language according to specified language levels. These language levels are arbitrary. No test is able to tell us at what point a second-language speaker’s language is exactly equivalent to the language of a native speaker.

Language assessments are good at detecting great leaps of growth in language proficiency at the beginning of the language learning process but very bad at detecting small changes and shifts in proficiency at the higher levels of proficiency as the second-language learners’ skills more closely approximate those of a native speaker.

It is much easier to measure growth in oral skills (listening and speaking) because these involve language production that can be examined for its features and characteristics and compared to the features of the language of a native speaker. It is much more difficult to measure growth in reading and writing skills since the range of abilities and skills among native speakers in these areas is much wider. Reading and writing do not grow steadily at the same rate as skills in listening and speaking. Therefore, it is very difficult to determine an annual increment of growth or set benchmarks using a test that has listening/speaking, reading and writing subtests.

Reading and writing are also actions that are performed for a specific purpose, so measures of the reading and writing must reflect the types of applications of these skills that a native speaker of the same age and grade level would be able to perform in order to be valid and reliable.

The CELDT is a matrix of 12 tests including four different grade level spans tests and 3 subtests. The test publishers have not provided sufficient technical analysis and cross-validation analyses for the CELDT to confirm that the test results are valid and reliable for cross-test and cross-group comparisons and interpretations. Nor is there sufficient evidence that the weighting of subtest scores to derive a composite score reflects the contribution of each language sub-skill to the total measure of “proficiency.”

What are the implications of the realities of second-language proficiency testing in interpreting the CELDT results?

Policymakers expect the CELDT to perform functions for which it was not designed and that cannot be performed by any measure of language proficiency with an acceptable level of reliability and validity. Policymakers must not devise policies that substitute the expert judgments of informed professionals and parents with arbitrary and often inaccurate test data.

Policymakers need to decide where to place priorities and how to allocate resources for EL students. Is the objective of lower standards of reclassification to save the federal government and the State money by reducing the number of students classified as EL? Or is the priority to ensure that funds are available to provide the programs, instructional materials, teacher professional development, and ancillary services to students who are have not attained academic parity with their native English speaking peers?

Governmental agencies must educate the public about the realities of educating EL students, including the amount of time it takes to acquire full proficiency in academic English. They should not contribute to public misperceptions and exaggerated expectations regarding these issues. This is especially crucial in public relations statements and reporting on annual test data.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of setting high vs. lower standards for reclassification?

See Table 1 below for an analysis of the perceived and actual advantages and disadvantages of setting high standards for reclassification.

Advantages and Disadvantages of “High Bar” vs. “Low Bar” Standards for Reclassification

High Bar Reclassification Standards:

Reclassification is more difficult to achieve and takes place later in the English acquisition process

Low Bar Reclassification Standards:

Reclassification is easier to achieve and takes place earlier in the English acquisition process.

Advantages Disadvantages Advantages Disadvantages
Maintains the funding for EL students while they continue to learn academic English Increases the “build-up” of EL that score at EA and A on CELDT but are not reclassified as FEP (LAO Report, 2006) Diminishes the “build-up” of non-reclassified high performing EL (LAO Report, 2006) Results in loss of federal and state funding for EL that could be useful in providing appropriate programs and instructional materials to address their academic needs.
Keeps high performing students in the EL subgroup, thereby raising the average score for this subgroup and increasing the chances that schools will not be placed in Program Improvement under NCLB Gives schools an “inappropriate advantage” to avoid sanctions under NCLB, regardless of how well or how poorly the schools are performing (LAO Report, 2006) Removes high scoring EL from the subgroup, thereby increasing the probability of schools entering Program Improvement under NCLB. Decreases the percentage of EL in the population who score EA or A on CELDT because reclassified (RFEP) do not take the CELDT.
Allows EL to make gains in CST scores as they increase their English proficiency Extends the number of academic years required for students to gain English proficiency reported based on the CELDT data. Shortens the number of academic years required for students to gain English proficiency based on the CELDT data. Presents the risk of having EL struggle in mainstream classes because of underdeveloped academic English language skills after reclassification.
Allows for the possibility of public approval because of potential increases in the percentage of students scoring at EA or A levels. Politically unpopular because of public concerns that EL are taking too long to learn English. Politically popular because data reflect “improvements” in annual reclassification rates for school districts and in the state EL population data reporting, which public has come to expect based on previous years’ reporting. Unpopular policy among educators because of loss of funding for EL students and risks to students’ continued academic achievement because of premature termination of special language and support services.