This policy report focuses on the tensions and dilemmas surrounding one of the most common milestones used for defining and measuring English Learners’ (ELs) progress: their redesignation or reclassification from limited to fluent English proficient (FEP). Although reclassification can have important consequences for students and for the education programs that serve them—determining instructional services, performance expectations, and evaluative judgments of programs—the concept of reclassification, as currently defined and implemented, cannot credibly carry this responsibility. In fact, it may actually be contributing to educational inequity, lack of accountability, and student failure.
After briefly reviewing the purposes and methods of identifying, classifying, and serving language-minority students, the report identifies three problems with the current situation. First, the complex nature of what ELs must demonstrate in order to be reclassified FEP is often poorly understood by policymakers, by educators not trained to serve this population, and by much of the general public. In school contexts, FEP is expected to connote sufficient mastery of several basic and academic language skills, and also requires meeting academic achievement standards in grade-level subject matter using English. While the latter is a necessary expectation, the consequences are significant: The common misconception that EL students only need to learn English and their academic achievement will naturally follow can hamper appropriate and timely support for them.
Second, reclassification policies and procedures in many schools and districts are inadequate. Chief among the concerns examined are using standardized, norm-referenced academic achievement tests (NRTs) to “trigger” reclassification reviews. Apart from the validity issues of testing language-minority students with NRTs designed for and normed on largely monolingual English-speaking populations, using NRTs to trigger reviews can easily lead to confusion and misinterpretation about the causes of low performance and impede timely, appropriate interventions. In addition, the multiple measures used to assess the various criteria for redesignation are not administered, recorded, or reviewed regularly. Many of these measures are labor-intensive and time-consuming, and those that are not standards-based yield little of value to inform instruction. Also, most school and district databases are not currently set up to store and use these data.
Third, the methods currently used to calculate reclassification rates from EL to FEP— one of the most commonly referenced statistics in assessing effectiveness of a district or school in serving English Learners—greatly distort the reality of student progress and program effectiveness, thereby diminishing accountability. The report recommends a number of strategies to improve the current situation. Among these, it argues that, beginning long before and continuing long after reclassification, a much longer trajectory of progress — in academic language development and in access to and achievement in the academic core —must be monitored, reported, and acted upon. The implications for how educators assess language-minority students, collect and analyze data, and use them to target and improve instruction are significant; so too are the responsibilities of policymakers to ensure that adequate financial, human, and technical resources are provided to improve accountability for the success of EL students.
The number of English Learners in the nation’s K-12 student population has grown exponentially in recent decades, especially in states such as California, Texas, Florida and New York. Coinciding with this growth has been increased efforts to hold educators at all levels more accountable for students’ academic achievement, resulting in the most significant inclusion ever of English Learners (ELs) in both local and state assessment and accountability systems. Thus, monitoring the progress of English Learners has never been more important. The most common milestone of educational progress has been their redesignation or reclassification from an official status of English Learner (EL) or limited English proficient (LEP) to one of fluent English proficient (FEP).(1)
This change in status may have important consequences for students and for the education programs that serve them. For students, a classification as EL or FEP can affect what instructional services they receive, the curriculum to which they have access, how they are assessed, and the academic performance standards to which they are held. For educators, a student’s classification should help inform how they work with and assess that student. For programs, classifications affect resource allocation, and reclassification rates influence the degree to which they are judged as effective or not. However, the concept of reclassification, as currently defined and implemented, cannot credibly carry this responsibility. In fact, it may actually be contributing to educational inequity, lack of accountability, and student failure. This policy report attempts to show why.
This report begins with a brief review of the origins, purposes, and methods of identifying language-minority students and classifying some as ELs. Next, it examines several key issues that generate the tensions and dilemmas regarding reclassification. Finally, it draws some conclusions about what is needed to improve the current situation.
While this report offers no easy solutions to the problems it identifies, it does attempt to provide state and local administrators and policymakers with some guidance for reviewing their current reclassification policies and procedures. Its ultimate aim is to stimulate reflection and discussion about options for building a more coherent system to better ensure academic success for English Learners and accountability for the programs that serve them.
(1) This report uses the terms English Learner (EL) as well as Limited English Proficient (LEP) since both terms are still used interchangeably by educators, in school and district documents, and in the professional literature; also, the latter term parallels other commonly used terms (e.g., FEP).