As more English Language Learners are reclassified as proficient and more schools earn letter-grade points for that, Arizona education leaders are considering changes to increase students’ academic growth and boost high school graduation rates, essential parts of state’s school accountability system.
One pressing concern is how the four-hour block of intensive English instruction in reading, writing, grammar and conversation affects high school ELL students.
“They’re not able to take all their credits and graduate – at least on time,” said Jacob Moore, a member of the State Board of Education and the board’s Structured English Immersion Models Review Committee.
“When the task force put together the SEI model, the people that they had in mind were really elementary students,” said Evie Cortés-Pletenik, curriculum director for language acquisition for Phoenix Union High School. “To this day we struggle with the model, because the model doesn’t necessarily fit our program.”
The 69,340 English Language Learners in Arizona public schools in fiscal 2014 – about 6.5 percent of all public school students – came to school speaking 37 languages with Spanish, English, Arabic, Vietnamese and Navajo leading the languages spoken, said Ashley Dammen, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Education.
“We have students from all over the world here,” said Craig Pletenik, communications director for Phoenix Union High School District. “My last count has 65 languages, plus English.”
In Phoenix Union, 14,111 students, or 47 percent, designated Spanish as their primary home language, Pletenik said. One hundred eight students speak Nepalese, 103 students speak Vietnamese, 84 students speak Arabic and 78 students speak Karen, a language spoken in Burma and Thailand, Pletenik said.
“Many of the languages are represented by one, or a few students,” Pletenik said. “It is often dependent on where the hot spots in the world are, with regards to refugees.”
The majority of the 300 English Language Learners at Flowing Wells Unified School District in Tucson speak Spanish, “but we also have students coming with Arabic, Cambodian, Filipino, French, Mandarin and Vietnamese home languages,” said Audrey Reff, director of federal programs for the district.
Glendale Union High School District has about 400 English Language Learners and 26 identified languages, said Kim Means, ELL coordinator.
ELL students’ proficiency and state accountability system
In fiscal year 2013, 23.6 percent of English Language Learners were reclassified as proficient, Dammen said. Fiscal year 2014 numbers are not public yet and cannot be compared with prior years, because of the new AZELLA test that began use in school year 2012-13 and additional exit criteria, Dammen said.
“The Office of Civil Rights required the exit criteria based on AZELLA to require proficient in both reading and writing and proficient overall, whereas beforehand the student only needed to attain proficient overall,” Dammen said.
The number of schools and local educational agencies earning all three ELL points in Arizona’s A-F letter grade school accountability system rose this year, Dammen said. Sixty two percent of all eligible schools earned the points this year, up from 44 percent last year, and 53 percent of LEAS earned the points this year, up from 40 percent last year, Dammen said.
To earn the points, a school/LEA must have 10 or more ELL students evaluated, test 95 percent of students with an ELL need on the Spring AZELLA and have 23 percent or more of all Full Academic Year ELL students across all grades reclassified as proficient.
Structured English Immersion models review committee
The current system of Structured English Immersion – where students receive four hours a day of English language development taught by highly qualified teachers and enter and exit the program based on their scores on the AZELLA proficiency test – is based on legislation passed by the Arizona Legislature, and “the State Board was not involved in that process,” Moore said.
The SEI Models Review Committee of Vicki Balentine, chair, Moore, and Joanne Kramer assumed the duties of the former English Language Learner Task Force through legislation. The committee will gather information and provide recommendations to the State Board of Education for final approval.
“There is a lot of statistical data in terms of how successful SEI is, what works and what doesn’t work,” Moore said. “We need to make a recommendation on this within the strictures of the law. We need to make it more efficient and more effective.”
In April and May the board put together an ELL sub-committee made up of former and current State Board members to review the models, Dammen said. The sub-committee asked the Arizona Department of Education to propose refinements or enhancements to the models, so ADE convened a small group of experts from the field, mainly ELL teachers, to discuss possible recommendations.
Districts/charters in the meetings about the secondary school model included Glendale Union, Scottsdale Unified, Tempe Union, Amphitheater Unified, Tucson Unified and the Leona Group. Crane Elementary, Paradise Valley Unified, Nogales Unified, Kayenta Unified, Creighton Elementary, Glendale Elementary and Cartwright Elementary were included in the meetings on the elementary school model.
Their draft document of recommendations on how to improve SEI was shared at a committee meeting on Aug. 20 as a starting point for additional feedback, which will be gathered from practitioners and education leaders from throughout the state over the next several months.
Among the initial suggested refinements from the small group are options for middle schools and high schools to consider reducing daily ELL hours from four to two for students who demonstrate intermediate level proficiency on the AZELLA and are in their second year of ELL instruction, according to the draft document. This could affect about 5,003 ELL second-year or higher students in grades 7 through 12.
Elementary schools could possibly break the four hours of SEI into two separate two hour blocks for first-year ELL students according to suggestions and add up to 30 minutes of literacy intervention services with non-ELL students, according to draft document. This could affect 22,302 first-year ELL students in grades kindergarten through sixth grade. About 4,130 students are in their first year of ELL in grades 7 through 12.
Recommendations for second-year ELL elementary students include flexibility to reduce the four-hour block by one hour for students who demonstrate intermediate level proficiency on the AZELLA and divide that into two 90 minute blocks of instruction. This could affect 25,604 second-year or higher ELL students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
The Arizona Department of Education will gather additional feedback and the final review of the recommendations will be made at the SEI Review committee in October. Then the State Board of Education will act on the recommendations.
Identifying English Language Learners
If any of the three questions on the home language survey are answered with a language other than English, that student is considered a potential English Language Learner, Means said. The student takes the state’s official language test called the AZELLA which measures English proficiency, said Means.
“Students who test proficient on this assessment are NOT placed in our SEI program – they are placed in all mainstream classes,” Means said. “Students who test less than proficient on this assessment are placed in our SEI program, which is four hours a day of language instruction – reading, writing, speaking/listening and grammar.”
English Language Learners at Flowing Wells Unified take either English Language Development classes or mainstream classes using Individualized Language Learner Plans, Reff said.
“In both cases, alignment between the English Language Proficiency Standards and Arizona’s College and Career Readiness Standards for English Language Arts is critical, because the goal for all students is to reach the state’s high academic standards,” Reff said.
Teachers vary supports based on students’ language proficiency, and Arizona Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition Service’steacher training focusing on grammar instruction has been particularly helpful, Reff said.
Alternate SEI programs
Eight of the Glendale Union’s nine schools has a full SEI program with the exception of Greenway which is on an Individualized Language Learning Plan because there are less than 20 English Language Learners at the school, Means said.
“We have the traditional four-hour SEI model in place for the vast majority of kids,” Means said. “The alternative model that the state accepted is that kids who meet some specific criteria only have to take two hours of English development classes rather than the required four. Not many kids qualify for the alternative model in any given school year.”
Phoenix Union’s alternative model which was also accepted by the state is slightly different.
“If the students have scored proficient in reading and writing, then we take them back to a two-hour model and the other two hours they’re in an English block to earn credit for graduation,” Cortés-Pletenik said.
To meet the state requirement of 22 credits to graduate, Phoenix Union’s 1,200 ELL students often use the district’s concept, credit recovery, evening classes, online courses and free summer school, Pletenik said.
“ELL kids are highly motivated to do well,” Cortés-Pletenik said.
Even after students are reclassified, after scoring proficient on AZELLA, “We monitor kids for two years to make sure that they are academically successful in content area classes,” Cortés-Pletenik said.