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Survey change likely means more ELL students

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English-language learning

Survey change likely means more ELL students

  • Students in an ELL class at Catalina High School work on a class project about personal heroes.
    Michael Zehring/Cronkite News ServiceStudents in an ELL class at Catalina High School work on a class project about personal heroes.

School districts are likely to see increases in English-language learners and the costs associated with the program after the federal government demanded that Arizona change a survey it uses to screen students, school officials and observers say.

The change in the home-language survey comes as the state lawmakers are discussing cuts to K-12 education to address the budget deficit.

"If you have to put more money in your ELL programs, then what else are you taking it away from?" said Tim Hogan, an attorney with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.

Hogan is the lawyer in a long-running legal battle with the state over the future of Arizona's English-language learner program.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights recently entered into an agreement with the Arizona Department of Education to increase the number of questions in the home-language survey from one to three. The survey screens students to determine those who will take a test that decides eligibility for ELL classes.

As part of the same review, federal investigators are continuing to evaluate Arizona's English proficiency test that qualifies students for English-learner programs.

In Arizona's English-learner program, known as Structured English Immersion, students spend four hours every day learning English with the goal of becoming proficient in one year.

In July 2009, former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne reduced the home survey to one question: "What is the primary language of the student?" The original survey asked the primary language spoken in the student's home, the language most often spoken by the student and language the student first acquired.

During the 2009-2010 school year, the total number of ELL students in Arizona fell by about 33,000 to about 100,000, according to state Department of Education figures.

School districts, which federal officials audited during their investigation, attributed the decline in part to the survey change.

Andrew LeFevre, a state Department of Education spokesman, said the state changed the survey because it over-identified English-learner students, putting students in ELL classrooms who didn't need to be there. He said the department would need more data to assess whether changing back to the three-question test would increase numbers in ELL classes.

But Sal Gabaldon, language acquisition specialist with the Tucson Unified School District, the state's second largest, said he expects the new survey will identify more students for language services.

"It will cost more time and more money," he said. "But ultimately that's the purpose of it: to serve all the kids that we should have been serving."

Gabaldon estimated that because of the survey change 25 percent of students who should have been tested last year for his district's English-language services were not. TUSD has enrolled 1,200 students in English-learner classes for next school year.

Last year, the Osborn School District in Phoenix included both home language surveys with registration forms to eliminate the chances of not identifying English-learner students, said Noemi Cortes, the district's language acquisition curriculum specialist.

"What happened was the [one-question] survey didn't allow us to capture all of the kids," she said.

Cortes said she expects the number of students who are placed in English-learner programs to rise.

"I think [the change] will give us an opportunity to identify students as immediately as possible," she said.

Mike Smith, adviser to the Arizona School Administrators, said that school districts will have to determine how to accommodate more English-learner students given limited state funding for those programs and anticipated cuts in overall state funding. More students could impede the state's goal of making students proficient in one year, he added.

"If we open the door on the front end for more kids, there will be more kids in the program," Smith said. "What will happen with more kids in the program is that there will be less intensive [English-learning] opportunities, so they will stay in the program longer."

Although Arizona teachers have the ability to recommend a child to take the English proficiency test independent of the survey, a research professor at Stanford University found that this wasn't happening.

"That was the problem with Arizona's logic that if [students] are truly ELLs they will be identified at some point," said Claude Goldenberg, author of a study on the Arizona home-language survey by The Civil Rights Project at University of California, Los Angeles, a university-based initiative. "That wasn't really an adequate fail-safe mechanism because many students fell through cracks."

Goldenberg said the change to the survey will definitely identify more students as deficient in English.

Although pleased with the change, Goldenberg said the survey isn't the only area of Arizona's English-language program that needs improvement.

"The home-language survey is one piece of a very complex, very political, very ideological and frankly not very well understood puzzle," he said.

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