Reclassifying English Learners into Mainstream Classrooms

By Matt Weyer | Vol . 25, No. 02 / January 2017


Did you know?

  • Reclassifying English learners into mainstream classes too early can lead to frustration and lower achievement.
  • Reclassifying them too late, on the other hand, can lead to social and educational stigmas and sometimes result in creating long-term English learners who are never integrated into mainstream classrooms.
  • The variation in reclassification practices between states makes it difficult to effectively serve highly mobile ELs.

Students who are non-native English speakers make up 10 percent of the K-12 students in the United States. Known as English learners (ELs), they are projected to represent 30 percent of all K-12 students nationwide by 2050. Currently, they represent 25 percent of all students in California, 17 percent in Nevada and 15 percent in Texas. Many states are experiencing exponential growth of English learners. Examples between 2002 and 2014 include:

South Carolina          437 percent

North Dakota             211 percent

Kentucky                   209 percent

Mississippi               192 percent

Kansas                      154 percent

Arkansas                   136 percent

English learners have become increasingly important to educators and lawmakers, largely because of the significant achievement gap they face when compared to their non-EL white counterparts and the costs of providing additional language support in school. On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, ELs trailed their non-EL white counterparts in reading by 37 points in fourth grade and 45 points in eighth grade. Similar numbers exist for mathematics, with ELs trailing 25 points in fourth grade and 38 points in eighth grade.

The achievement gap is somewhat expected early in English learners’ education, when students are still mastering their native language while simultaneously learning content in English. The critical piece is accurately determining when they are ready for instruction exclusively in English. Reclassification refers to the process a state or district uses to identify an EL as proficient in English and move them out of language support instruction into mainstream English classrooms. Reclassification marks a significant milestone in the education of English learners.

State Action

States use many different criteria for making reclassification decisions. Ten states and the District of Columbia use the composite score from a measure of English language proficiency (ELP), which is the federal minimum requirement. Nineteen states use specific language domain scores from ELP measures in addition to the ELP composite score. Twenty-one states use multiple measures in addition to the ELP composite score and domain score(s). These include teacher and/or principal recommendation and observation, English literacy and writing achievement, parental feedback and any combination of these criteria.

Researchers have connected higher English language proficiency (ELP) levels with higher passing rates on subsequent English language arts and mathematics tests. For example, 96 percent of Arizona third-graders deemed “proficient” on ELP assessments passed the fourth- and fifth-grade English language arts (ELA) tests. By comparison, 58 percent of students who scored at the lower, “intermediate” level on their ELP assessments passed the ELA tests.

The table above explains the pros and cons of the various reclassification criteria. In general, research supports that using multiple measures provides more information about the English learner, leading to more successful outcomes.  

Federal Action

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires that states standardize their reclassification practices at the state level. While very few states have practices that differ within, there is considerable variation between states. The ESSA provides states the autonomy to examine these practices and innovate in order to best serve English learners. 

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