Despite hundreds of English learner students scoring high enough to be designated as fluent English proficient, very few of them are actually being reclassified, according to Santa Barbara Unified School District administrators.
“We have not done a good job in this area. I’m going to be very, very frank with you,” Emilio Handall, assistant superintendent of elementary education, told the Board of Education on Tuesday night.
He said the problems don’t lie with the protocols themselves, but with the lack of implementation.
“Unfortunately, (in 2010-11) we were only reclassifying 57 out of 445 elementary students who were eligible,” Handall noted.
“That’s horrible,” murmured a board member from the dais.
Local and statewide trends show that so-called reclassified or redesignated students score higher — for SBUSD, 66 percent were proficient or advanced last year — than both English learner students and Hispanic English-only students.
To be eligible for reclassification in the Santa Barbara district, students need to hit specific academic benchmarks. In addition to certain California Standards Test, elementary school students need “basic” scores for English and math, and secondary students need to have a “C” or higher in core subject areas of English, math, social studies and science.
There is supposed to be a teacher evaluation, parental consultation, reclassification by a committee, then monitoring the student’s progress for two years, according to the district’s protocols, which were approved in 2006 by the California Department of Education.
The bottleneck lies with the actual redesignation process, since not every school has a redesignation committee, Handall said.
He and Ben Drati, assistant superintendent for secondary schools, plan to sit down with every principal and make it clear what they expect from the process. It becomes detrimental to students if they’re kept in English-learner classes when they shouldn’t be, Drati said.
There are students who score advanced in language arts in early elementary school but aren’t redesignated at the time because their file never gets to a committee, and teachers keep passing the student on through the grades.
“They could be performing better than English-only peers, and if not for that initial designation as an English-language learner, they would be on the college-bound track,” Handall said. “That’s a big problem.”
After awhile, students realize they can read better than their friends but are still kept in lower-level classes, so they mentally check out, he added.
Board member Monique Limon asked exactly what piece of the protocols wasn’t being followed.
“The will,” Superintendent Dave Cash said.
“The piece we’re getting stuck at is the actual redesignation, having the meeting and having a discussion about every student,” Handall said. “We made this very easy for every site — each site every year gets the names of qualified students; they just failed to take action on it.”
If fewer than 50 percent of students who meet the very high criteria are actually reclassified, Handall said, “I don’t believe that accurately projects the individual merit of every single students who’s eligible.”
About 50 percent of elementary school students and 19 percent of secondary students are English learners, according to district data.
In 2010-11, 57 of 445 eligible elementary students were redesignated as fluent English proficient. In 2011-12, 106 of 217 were redesignated, and so far this year, four have been redesignated.
For secondary schools, the numbers are much higher, with 57 percent of eligible students being reclassified in 2010-11 and 95 percent reclassified last year.
Elementary schools are more reluctant to reclassify, and the “prevailing philosophy” has been to wait until students hit junior high school for fear that students won’t be given enough support when content and language demands get more difficult, Handall said, and Cash confirmed.
“It may have come from a genuine place, the fear, but I don’t agree with the practice,” Handall said.
There are financial motives for schools to keep students as English learners, too. Title III money and other state and federal funds are given to schools based on the number of English learners at each site, since those students are supposed to be awarded additional services.
“Do you think we have some schools reluctant to reclassify because their fear losing funding?” board member Annette Cordero asked Handall.
“Yes,” he answered.
The state and national assessments — Average Yearly Progress and Academic Performance Index — both portion scores into subgroups based on language fluency, “so it advantages schools to not reclassify high performing English Learners,” a May board brief states.
“It’s pretty unconscionable really, that students are held back who clearly showed proficiency,” board member Susan Deacon said. “I think any child who’s artificially held back because of some preconception about their ability to succeed is really something that shouldn’t be happening in our district.”
She also questioned the protocols themselves. Many native English speakers score below a “C” in core subjects, she said, so it doesn’t seem fair to hold back an English learner if they’re proficient in other areas.
Board member Kate Parker said staff members need more training on the process and about the potentially harmful outcomes if reclassification doesn’t happen.
“We need teachers and principals to reflect on the difference it makes to each student,” she said.
Limon said parents ask her about the forms they fill out for school, worrying that if they check “Spanish” for the language spoken at home, their child could be classified as an English learner the entire time they spend in the district.
“Based on teacher reports, student placement in higher level courses, and test scores, there seems to be a correlation between the increasing levels of reclassification and the more consistent and coherent curriculum being used with English Learners,” the May board brief notes.
Cash, Drati and Handall are discussing the problem more at an upcoming meeting with all the principals, Cash added, so there will be an update to the board at a later date.
The Board of Education also unanimously agreed to extend Cash’s contract to the end of the 2013-14 school year. Deacon said the board was very pleased with his performance, so the contract is extended and slightly modified. Cash may now convert up to five unused vacation days to payment at his per-diem rate.