English learners (EL) students are one of the fastest growing student populations in the United States. The academic performance of ELs has gone from being a concern for a handful of states to quickly becoming a national issue. As such, both state and federal governments have taken a more active policymaking role in efforts to enhance educational opportunity for ELs. For example, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires that states standardize the criteria they use to reclassify students as English proficient. Reclassification is a critical point in an EL student’s academic trajectory: if reclassified too early, they may be deprived of necessary support services and run the risk of falling behind. Conversely, if reclassified too late, EL students may not have access to honors and college preparatory coursework and may be more likely to drop out of high school. Although federal and state policies have resulted in stricter sets of controls, local education agencies (LEAs) are still afforded much freedom in the implementation process. Michigan State University Assistant Professor Madeline Mavrogordato and Doctoral Candidate Rachel White explored EL reclassification in Texas to better understand variation in EL reclassification policy implementation.
Variation in English Learner Reclassification
Texas has a longstanding policy that requires schools to establish a committee charged with annually reviewing and monitoring the progress of EL students in order to decide when to exit them from EL status and reclassify them as English proficient. This study sought to examine the extent to which reclassification practices varies across the state. Using a mixed-methods approach, Mavrogordato and White began by conducting a quantitative analysis that included a sample of 55,763 EL students to investigate whether ELs with the same academic and English proficiency scores were reclassified at different rates across the state. They then collected qualitative data by observing and interviewing committees as they met to make reclassification decisions in eight schools located in three different regions of the state.
This study found that similar EL students were reclassified at different rates across geographic regions in Texas. For example, an EL students who attended school in the El Paso metropolitan area was nearly twice as likely to be reclassified by the end of seventh grade as a similar EL student who attended school in the Rio Grande Valley (p<0.001). In short, two students who performed at the same academic and English proficiency levels and were identical on a whole host of demographic and educational characteristics had statistically significant and notably different rates of reclassification depending on where they attended school in Texas.
This variation in the rate of reclassification appeared to be linked to how school committees understood and implemented reclassification policy on the ground. Committees went about organizing the reclassification decision-making process in strikingly different ways. For example, while some committees focused on filling out forms, others spent their time discussing the progress and needs of each EL student in the school. Additionally, while some committees prioritized English proficiency and academic achievement data, others heavily weighted classroom teachers’ recommendations in the reclassification process. These differences can be tied back to committee members’ understanding of the underlying purpose of reclassification policy.
What It Means to You
This study has important implications for both how EL students are served and policy implementation. Although federal and state governments have sought to ensure equity for ELs by pushing states to standardize reclassification criteria, it is important to recognize that how local educators interpret, understand, and implement these policies will impact policy outcomes. For one, differences in reclassification by region have consequences for comparing the performance of ELs across states and holding schools accountable, a key provision of federal EL policy under ESSA. Second, how different committees understood the intent of the law changed how it was carried out. While committees in some schools saw the annual review process as an opportunity to advocate for each individual EL student, others focused on technical processes to ensure the school was in compliance with state law. These findings suggest that the implementation of EL reclassification policy could be improved by providing committee members with professional development to build their capacity and help them understand the spirit of the law so that they are able to implement the policy in such a way as to expand educational opportunity for EL students.
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