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More Students Show Fluency in English

Times Staff Writer

For the third straight year, growing numbers of California students with limited English skills have tested fluent, according to state scores released Tuesday that offered promising news about the performance of children who speak English as a second language.

“We’re moving in the right direction,” said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. “These results are a clear indication that our English learners are making progress toward fluency.”

State education officials attributed the increases to teachers who have been better trained in new standards for limited English students and in the use of specialized instructional materials, among other things.

But the results were tempered by other data that showed most students remain classified by their schools as limited English speakers even though they tested fluent.

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Students who remain in the limited English category find it harder to gain access to more challenging classes, critics said. But such students also receive supplemental instruction in English.

Overall, the results from the California English Language Development Test showed that 47% of California’s 1.3 million limited English students were fluent last year, compared with 43% for the previous year. The fluency rate has steadily increased from 25% in 2001.

Much of the increase was driven by students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where the rising fluency rate outpaced the state.

In Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest school district, 49% of students with limited English skills were fluent in 2004, up from 16% in 2001.

School district officials said the encouraging results stemmed in large part from an increased focus on improving instruction for limited English students, who account for 42% of its 746,000 students.

“We know that if these students succeed, LAUSD succeeds, and ultimately, the state and city succeed,” said Board of Education President Jose Huizar. “We are very proud of these results. But we have a long way to go.”

Students with limited English abilities account for 25% of California’s 6 million public school children. The state has been testing them since 2001 to gauge their familiarity with written and spoken English.

Kindergarteners and first-graders are tested in speaking and listening skills. Students in grades 2 through 12 also are tested in reading and writing.

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The test groups students into five levels of reading fluency: beginning, early intermediate, intermediate, early advanced and advanced. Students are considered fluent if they reach the early advanced or advanced level.

Statewide, much of the progress in 2004 occurred in grades 5 through 12, where students showed the greatest increases in English fluency, according to a Times analysis of the data.

State officials said, however, that those increases could be attributed in part to schools keeping students in the limited English classification even after they tested fluent.

To switch fully to “English proficient” status, students must demonstrate fluency on the English test and also score well on separate academic tests. The transition also depends on teacher evaluations and parent input.

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Statewide, just 8.3% of students with limited English abilities were reclassified as fully English proficient in 2003 -- almost the same as the 7.8% figure in 2001.

The state officials said they were concerned that schools were not reclassifying enough students as competent in English -- even though they are fluent -- and thus hindering the students’ access to more challenging classes.

Some educators speculated that schools were holding back students in the limited English category so they could continue to collect special state and federal funds.

But state education officials said that teachers were reluctant to change designations for fear of cutting students off from the instructional support they get in English.

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“In some cases, some schools may be overprotective of students,” said Geno Flores, a deputy superintendent in the state Department of Education who oversees school testing programs. “It may be an unintended consequence of the attempt to ensure that students are really well-prepared to reclassify.”

Some districts exceeded the state figures. In the Long Beach Unified School District, for example, nearly 17% of limited English students were reclassified as fully proficient in 2003-04.

District officials said the higher rate was the result of efforts to monitor students’ progress and intervene early so they could eventually transition to more rigorous classes without additional help in English.

Of Long Beach’s 97,000 students, 27,000, or 28%, speak English as a second language.

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“There is a lot of support for students who are working below grade level,” said Assistant Supt. Lynn Winters. “And there is an emphasis on teaching the California standards and extensive staff development programs.”

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Times staff writer Cara Mia DiMassa and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.


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