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Study examines state policy for identifying English learner students who have achieved English proficiency

Study examines state policy for identifying English learner students who have achieved English proficiency

Carol Felicio | September 1, 2022

REL Southwest, the New Mexico Public Education Department, and other education partners work together through our Southwest English Learners Research Partnership to support English learner students across the state. This post highlights the key findings from the partnership’s recent study, Effects of Reclassifying English Learner Students on Student Achievement in New Mexico.


For English learner students, demonstrating fluent English proficiency is an important academic milestone, indicating that students are ready to engage in academic learning in English without specialized language learning supports. The process of reclassifying students as fluent English proficient is a balancing act, however. When reclassified too soon, students may be asked to learn material that is not accessible to them without English language development supports.1 When reclassified too late, students may end up receiving services they no longer need.2

The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 requires that states conduct annual English language proficiency testing for English learner students and set statewide score thresholds for demonstrating proficiency. In New Mexico, state-level policy mandates that English learner students are ready for reclassification when they achieve an overall English proficiency level score of 5.0 or higher on the ACCESS for ELLs (ACCESS) assessment, a proficiency assessment developed by the WIDA Consortium.

In 2016, the WIDA Consortium undertook a standards-setting process to better align the ACCESS assessment’s proficiency level scores with current college- and career-ready standards.3 Although New Mexico’s required proficiency level score for reclassification remained the same (5.0), fewer English learner students met the threshold for reclassification after the standards setting.

What did the study examine?

The New Mexico Public Education Department and other members of the Southwest English Learners Research Partnership wanted to understand whether the ACCESS score threshold for reclassification appropriately identifies New Mexico students who have attained English proficiency. For this reason, REL Southwest conducted a study to examine the effects of English learner student reclassification on academic achievement for New Mexico students in grades 3–8. The study looked at students’ next-year English language arts and math achievement in 2014/15–2016/17 (before the ACCESS standards setting) and 2017/18–2018/19 (after the ACCESS standards setting). In addition, the study examined whether the effects of reclassification varied by student group (grade band, race/ethnicity, and gender). The study findings can inform decisions about potential revisions to New Mexico’s English learner reclassification policy, which could affect the education experiences of such students across the state.

What did the study find?

  • As New Mexico educators had reported, the study found that after the ACCESS standards setting, fewer English learner students attained English proficiency and were reclassified each year. In 2014/15–2016/17, before the ACCESS standards setting, the percentage of New Mexico’s English learner students in grades 3–8 who attained English proficiency and reclassification each year ranged from 17 percent to 20 percent. After the ACCESS standards setting, the percentage dropped to 2 percent in 2017/18 and 5 percent in 2018/19.
  • In the years before and after the ACCESS standards setting, English learner student reclassification did not affect students’ next-year English language arts or math achievement, on average. In both 2014/15–2016/17 (before the ACCESS standard setting) and 2017/18–2018/19 (after the ACCESS standard setting), English language arts and math achievement were similar 1 year later for English learner students who were reclassified as well as for those who came close to the reclassification threshold but were not reclassified that year.
  • After the ACCESS standards setting, English learner student reclassification did not affect next-year English language arts and math achievement among most groups of students with different characteristics. There were no statistically significant differences in the effects of reclassification among New Mexico students by grade band (grades 3–5 or grades 6–8), gender, or Hispanic ethnicity.
  • In most districts, there was no clear effect of English learner student reclassification on student achievement. The study also considered the effects of English learner student reclassification on each of the 20 districts in New Mexico with the largest enrollment of English learner students. Reclassification had a positive average effect on English language arts achievement in only one district and no effect for the other districts. For math achievement, reclassification had a negative effect in one district, a positive effect in two districts, and no effect in the remaining districts.

Next steps

State education leaders in New Mexico can use these findings to support maintaining the current statewide reclassification threshold. In addition, district leaders can consider opportunities to strengthen supports for English learner students leading up to and following reclassification.

The findings also indicate a potential need for further research. For example, the study used administrative records from the state’s data reporting system. These records do not provide information about the instructional education experiences and school climate of English learner students leading up to or in the year after reclassification. This information would help inform how educators might adjust their practices to better support students. In addition, further research could help New Mexico education leaders identify ways to strengthen the state's capacity to meet the needs of English learner students and could inform the professional development and other resources the state provides to districts and educator preparation programs.

Mayra Valtierrez, director of the Language and Culture Division at the New Mexico Public Education Department, noted the division strives to provide accountability with support in service of New Mexico’s students. “We will consider the content of the report,” Valtierrez said, “and move forward to support districts in strengthening instruction provided to English Learner students, including a focus on language acquisition and culturally and linguistically responsive learning environments.”

Endnotes

1 Linquanti & Cook, 2015.

2 Abedi, 2008; Callahan, 2005; Callahan et al., 2010; Estrada, 2014; Estrada & Wang, 2018; Robinson, 2011; Thompson, 2017.

3 Cook & MacGregor, n.d.


Additional REL Southwest resources on English learner students:

References

Abedi, J. (2008). Classification system for English language learners: Issues and recommendations. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 27(3), 17–31. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ808338

Callahan, R. M. (2005). Tracking and high school English learners: Limiting opportunity to learn. American Educational Research Journal, 42(2), 305–328. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ737124

Callahan, R. M., Wilkinson, L., & Muller, C. (2010). Academic achievement and course taking among language minority youth in U.S. schools: Effects of ESL placement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 32(1), 84–117. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ880614

Cook, H. G., & MacGregor, D. (n.d.). ACCESS for ELLs 2.0 assessment proficiency level scores: Standard setting report. WIDA Research and Center for Applied Linguistics. http://www.cde.state.co.us/assessment/accessforellsstandardsettingreport

Estrada, P. (2014). English learner reclassification to fluent English proficient: Meeting criteria, roadblocks, opportunities, and consequences: Years 1 and 2 findings (Reclassifying English Learners to Fluent English Proficient: Access and Achievement, Practitioner Research Brief 1). University of California–Santa Cruz. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED555260

Estrada, P., & Wang, H. (2018). Making English learner reclassification to fluent English proficient attainable or elusive: When meeting criteria is and is “not” enough. American Educational Research Journal, 55(2), 207–242. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1173075

Linquanti, R., & Cook, H. G. (2015). Re-examining reclassification: Guidance from a national working session on policies and practices for exiting students from English learner status. Council of Chief State School Officers.

Robinson, J. P. (2011). Evaluating criteria for English learner reclassification: A causal-effects approach using a binding-score regression discontinuity design with instrumental variables. Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 33(3), 267–292. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ935250

Thompson, K. D. (2017). English learners’ time to reclassification: An analysis. Educational Policy, 31(3), 330–363. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1135773

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Author Information

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Carol Felicio

Communications Associate | REL Southwest

cfelicio@air.org