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Failure Guaranteed

Why are California schools so eager to classify 4- and 5-year-olds as English Learners? Just follow the money.

by
Joanne Jacobs

Bio

September 27, 2011 - 12:04 am

Failure is almost guaranteed for four- and five-year-olds who take California’s test to identify “English Learners,” concludes a new study by Berkeley’s Center for Latino Policy Research.

Only 12 percent of entering kindergartners who take the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) are deemed fluent in English, even though 85 percent were born in the U.S.  Outside of Los Angeles, the CELDT pass rate is 6 percent.

One in three California elementary students is classified as an English Learner. That’s because schools are misidentifying large numbers of children, conclude Berkeley Education Professor Lisa García Bedolla and researcher Rosaisela Rodriguez.  As a result, teaching and tutoring resources are spread thin: Some kids are taught skills they already know, while others don’t get enough help.

It all starts with the home language survey, which asks about the child’s first language, the language he or she speaks most often at home, the languages the adults speak at home, and what language the parents speak most often with their child.

If Mom mentions a language other than English — or in addition to English — the child will be given the nearly unpassable CELDT, the researchers find.

Maybe Grandma lives with the family and speaks Spanish?  A five-year-old will be given a two-hour test which requires him to talk to a stranger with no parent in the room.

A two-hour test is too much for children that young, say García Bedolla and Rodriguez. Observers report children crying and hiding under chairs or tables.  CELDT, which keeps getting longer, has added reading and writing questions for children who haven’t started kindergarten.

I guess that 12 percent pass rate was too high.

Most ELs are taught in mainstream classrooms, but they’re usually pulled out of class for instruction in basic English. Some schools provide aides to tutor ELs in what’s supposed to be their home language. A few still offer bilingual classes, especially for K-3 students.

Children classified in kindergarten will be ELs through third grade — or longer. Even if they test as fluent on CELDT in higher grades, they’ll find it hard to exit the program. Some school districts won’t reclassify ELs as proficient in English unless they outperform their English-only classmates, earn above-average grades, get teachers’ recommendations, or other criteria.

They argue ELs must prove they’re able to handle mainstream classes without extra “services.”

ELs who leave the program in elementary school usually do fine. Those who remain ELs into middle school — about half of the total — are likely to fail.

Bilingual families can raise children who are proficient in English and ready for school, says García Bedolla.  (In fact, researchers say learning two languages as a child is good for the brain, making it more agile.)

To evaluate readiness, the professor suggests asking parents how often they read to their child or whether they have books at home. In addition, parents should be asked whether they think their child needs help with English and teachers should be asked how the child’s doing after a few weeks of school.

Years ago, I asked a San Jose kindergarten teacher how long it takes for English Learners to start speaking English.  Many students had told me their English clicked in at the Christmas break.

“A few days,” the teacher said.  Shyness — not lack of English — was responsible for kindergartners’ designation as ELs. And that was pre-CELDT when the test took less than 30 minutes. (CELDT was the reform!)

I know a bilingual toddler who’s very bright and somewhat shy.  Note to self: Warn Francesca’s parents to lie on the home survey.

Why are schools so eager to classify children as English Learners and so reluctant to reclassify them as proficient?

Follow the money: Schools get federal funding for English Learners.

García Bedolla agrees that the incentives are wrong. She adds that schools get kudos if ELs test as English proficient in third grade, even if they were fluent to begin with.  It’s an easy way to look good.

If ELs don’t do well, their failure can be blamed on their lack of English skills.

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