Fix the Fluency System
April 5, 2003
Editorial, LA Times

California teachers, including those in the Los Angeles Unified School District, are successfully teaching English to many children who had just a slight grasp of the language only a year or two ago. State test scores show that the students are increasingly fluent. Now the schools need to work on formally classifying more of those children as fluent, qualifying them to join regular classes. To nudge that along, the state should stop rewarding schools financially for letting students languish in the limited-English category and put some limits on the practice.

Nearly a third of the state's English learners scored at "early advanced" or "advanced" levels on the California English Language Development Test, an hours-long assessment of oral and written skills in grammar, vocabulary and reading comprehension. But only about 9% of limited-English speakers are reclassified each year as fluent, which gets them out of English-development classes and into more advanced coursework, the kinds of classes that polish their academic resumes. L.A.'s figures roughly mirror the statewide situation: A higher percentage of students is reclassified than before bilingual education was struck down. But it should be greater.

California law lets schools decide whether a student is ready for the change, based on teacher evaluations and other factors. Certainly no single test should be the criterion for thrusting children into advanced classes for which they might not be prepared. However, the system pushes schools not to move students into regular classes, because schools get an additional $239 a year in federal and state payments for each English learner. The state's payout totals more than $250 million a year. Some administrators are said to pressure teachers to keep children classified as limited-English so the money will keep flowing.

It's interesting to contemplate how that would change if the state rewarded schools for successfully relabeling students as fluent. It could create the opposite problem, pushing wobbly students into demanding classes in which they would founder.

A better plan would set deadlines once a student passed the state language test. Give the school another year or two to bring that student to readiness for regular classes and pay the extra subsidy until the deadline, no matter how the student is classified. That would remove money from the equation and let teachers make honest assessments.