English Learners and the 2008 Achievement Gap

by multilingualmania on July 21, 2009

in English Learners, Research

Today I provided a presentation to teachers today about the achievement gap that exists between students who have been identified as “English learners” (i.e., bilingual learners) and other groups of students. At the time we were discussing how the various demographic subgroups of students performed on the California Standards Test in 2008. Teachers were very upset to see these charts of the numbers of students who were achieving at the proficient or advanced levels of the state assessment in English Language Arts and Math:



The green line running through the chart is the achievement target that the state has set for the 2008 school year. In other words, the state requires that 34.0 percent of all students in each subgroup is at the proficient or advanced level in English Language Arts and 34.6 percent of students are proficient or advanced in math. We haven’t received the 2009 scores yet, but the achievement target was raised this year to reflect that approximately 45% of students should be at the proficient or advanced levels.

Teachers were visibly upset that African Americans, Latinos (which includes native English-speakers as well as English learners) and the English learner population was significantly underperforming other subgroups. While they were shocked about the data, I’m actually shocked that educators are unaware of the serious problem of the achievement gap that has existed for years.

There are a number of problems in the data though, but it still doesn’t discount that we must have a serious sense of urgency to improve the education of English learners and other underperforming subgroups. One problem with the data is that the English learner subgroup will always appear to be a perpetually underperforming subgroup because high performing students are moved out of the English learner category once they have: 1) achieved sufficient proficiency in English,  2) have been formally reclassified to fluent-English-proficient (i.e., students who have attained native-like proficiency in English), and 3) have scored at the proficient or advanced levels for two years. In other words, students are eventually exited from the English learner subgroup as they attain sufficient proficiency in English, while other new students with less proficiency in English enter the category each year. Nonetheless, we still have a serious problem because many students in the English learner subgroup  tend to plateau at the Intermediate level of proficiency and may not be formally exited out of the English learner category.

So, the next time that someone tells you that students have been doing extraordinarily well since bilingual education in California has decreased with the implementation of Prop 227 , you can see for yourself that their claims are inaccurate. It’s been more than ten years since Prop 227 and we still have a serious achievement gap, even after many bilingual education programs have been dismantled. The fact that African Americans and English-speaking Latina/os are underperforming on state assessments lends credence to the notion that placing students exclusively in English is not the magic bullet that anti-bilingual education fanatics proclaim it to be.

I’d like to tell you that we would probably see better results if students’ test scores on the Spanish version of the California Standards Test were taken into account, but I can’t. For one, California doesn’t take the scores into account. Secondly, I’ve heard through the grapevine that the future scores that were set for the Spanish assessment that may be possibly used in the future don’t miraculously paint the picture in a better light.

We see similar trends in the data of local school districts that is consistent with state data. Here is data from some of the largest school districts in California, in order of size (i.e., largest first):

Los Angeles Unified School District:




San Diego City Unified:



Long Beach Unified:



Fresno Unified:



California, we’ve got a SERIOUS problem.

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