English Learners in California:What the Numbers Say

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  • English Learners in California: What the Numbers Say

    ALMOST HALF OF PUBLIC SCHOOLstudents in California live in homeswhere the most frequently spokenlanguage is not English. Of those,about half are designated asEnglish learners by their schooldistrict. State data make it clear thatas a whole the English learnergroup faces particular hurdles toacademic success. One key tounderstanding and addressing thechallenge of effectively educating thesestudents is to see beyond the English learner(EL) label to the diversity of studentsincluded in this subgroup.

    This report describes the states Englishlearners with respect to their primarylanguages, distribution across the grades, andlocation in California. It also discusses varia-tions in English proficiency and progresstoward proficiency, including how it is definedin one county that represents the states diver-sity. Finally, the report considers how wellthese students are meeting the states rigorousacademic standards by describing theirachievement levels on theCalifornia StandardsTests in English language arts and math andon the California High School Exit Exam.

    Who are Californias English learners?In California, a public K12 pupil is calledan English learner if the students home orprimary language is not English and his orher district has not reclassified the student asfluent English proficient based on statetest scores and other criteria.

    State law requires that districts identifyand assess English learnersA students primary language is identifiedthrough the Home Language Survey. For

    decades the state has required school districtsto collect this information on all studentswith limited English proficiency and report itto the California Department of Education(CDE). Districts generally administer thesurvey to all parents as part of their new-student registration process. The HomeLanguage Survey asks four questions pertain-ing to the first language the student learned tospeak and the language used most frequentlyat home. If the parents indicate, or the districtlearns through further inquiry, that the homelanguage is not English, the student is consid-ered to have a non-English primary language.

    Since 200102, schools must assess theEnglish proficiency of all students whoseprimary language is not English using the Cali-fornia English Language Development Test(CELDT). Students who score in the lowerthree levels (of five) are considered Englishlearners. (CELDT scores and their use arediscussed in more detail beginning on page 6.)

    One quarter of the states public schoolstudents are English learnersData from 200607, the most recentpublished by CDE, show that California had6.3 million pupils in grades K12. Of those,1.6 million (25%) were considered Englishlearners. This percentage has been very stable

    over the last decade, ranging from24.6% to 25.6%, though the defi-nition of English learner hasvaried somewhat depending partlyon what standardized assessmentswere used.

    Californias English learnerscomprise about one-third of thenations ELs, according to200506 data from the NationalCenter for Education Statistics

    (NCES). A survey of a few large, diversestates reveals that their definitions ofEnglish learner appear quite similar, butthe specific assessments and criteria used todetermine EL status likely differ somewhat.

    Californias ELs are found across allgrades and throughout the stateThe vast majority of English learners in Cali-fornia are Spanish-speaking; the others speaka wide variety of languages. English learnersare only classified as such until their districtsredesignate them as fluent English proficientbased on performance on state tests, teacherevaluation, and parent consultation. With asignificant portion of ELs entering the statesschools in kindergarten, the early grades havea disproportionate share. The percentagesdiminish in the later grades as ELs are eitherreclassified as fluent in English or leave thepublic school system. Just as English learnersare spread unevenly among all grades, they arealso spread unevenly throughout the state,though they are found in rural, suburban, andurban areas of California. Data from thestates 10 largest school districts presentedin this report provide more detail re-garding variations in how these studentsare distributed and the mix of primarylanguages represented.

    EdSource is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization established in California in 1977.

    Independent and impartial, EdSource strives to advance the common good by developing and widely distributing trustworthy, usefulinformation that clarifies complex K12 education issues and promotes thoughtful decisions about Californias public school system.

    M A R C H 2 0 0 8R E P O R T



  • E D S O U R C E R E P O R T

    2 English Learners in California March 2008 Copyright 2008 by EdSource, Inc.

    Californias English learners speak morethan 50 different languagesCDE reports on 55 individual non-Englishprimary languages plus an all other non-English languages category, for a total of 56categories. According to 200607 data,Spanish is the primary language for 85% ofELs, and those students are predominantly ofMexican heritage.The Census Bureaus 2006American Community Survey found thatamong a sample of California children ages518 who speak Spanish at home, 83% wereof Mexican heritage, 4% were Salvadoran,2% were Guatemalan, and the rest had rootsin other, primarily Latin American, countries.

    After Spanish, the most common primarylanguage among Californias ELs is Viet-namese, spoken by 2.2% of English learners.Rounding out the top five are Filipino(consisting of Pilipino orTagalog, spoken inthe Philippines), Cantonese (a Chinesedialect), and Hmong (a group of dialectsamong an ethnic minority population inChina and southeast Asia). Figure 1 displaysdata on the primary languages spoken by atleast 1% of Californias English learners.

    These data have changed somewhat overtime. The percentage of Spanish-speakingELs has increased moderately, causing corre-sponding decreases in the percentages of theother top languages. Spanish speakers, whocomprise 85% of ELs today, constituted83% in 200102 and 80% five years earlier.In addition, slight changes in already smallpercentages of Filipino, Hmong, andCantonese speakers have caused their rank-ings to shift somewhat during the last fewyears, with Filipino growing slightly andHmong shrinking a little.

    The makeup of English learners in Cali-fornia generally mirrors that of ELs in theUnited States except that Spanish speakersare a somewhat larger percentage of thewhole in California. According to 2002data, 77% of ELs in the nation speak Span-ish. Vietnamese speakers comprise 2.4%,and Hmong, Korean, and Arabic are thethird through fifth most common primarylanguages. (Korean and Arabic are, respec-tively, the sixth and 10th most commonprimary languages among Californias ELs.)

    The percentage of English learnersdecreases as students move through schoolStudents are identified as ELs until theyachieve district-specified scores on state testsand meet other academic criteria (discussedin detail on pages 67). The distribution ofELs across grade levels reflects that students,as they get older, are moved out of the ELcategory. About 8% of English learners arereclassified as fluent English proficient(RFEP) each year, and the imprecise dropout

    This report does not cover many issues that are importantto the education of English learners (ELs). First, it does notdelve into debates about the best curricular or instructionalapproaches for ELs. Nor does it cover the statistics on a numberof issues affecting ELs, such as the qualifications of teacherswho work with these students, the condition of their schoolfacilities, or availability of instructional materials. Finally, itdoes not, except in limited instances, discuss the socioeco-nomic status of English learners. Rather, as indicated in thetopics listed below, this report focuses on who these studentsare, where they are located in California, and what we knowabout their academic achievement.

    What Do the Data IndicateAbout English Acquisition? ......................................6

    Performance Data Offer Another View ....................11

    The Numbers Show That DespiteSome Progress, English LearnersFace Considerable Challenges ..............................15

    This report was researched and written by:Brian EdwardsJulian LeichtyKathy Wilson

    Edited by:Mary Perry

    EdSource thanks the S. H. Cowell Foundation for helping to sup-port the research, production, and dissemination of this report.

    InsideThis Report

    Primary Languages of English Learners in 200607





    Korean1.1%All Other Languages*



    figure 1 Spanish is the primary language for 85% of English learners; but among theremaining 15%, a large variety of languages is spoken

    Data: California Department of Education (CDE) EdSource 3/08

    *This includes 49 other CDE-identified languages, which comprise 6.4%, and CDEs all other non-English languages category, which comprisesseveral other languages totaling 0.9%.

  • E D S O U R C E R E P O R T

    data that the state has indicate that ELs dropout of high school disproportionately. As aresult, ELs are not equally distributed across

    grades kindergarten through 12. In kinder-garten, about 42% of students are ELs, andthe percentage generally decreases at each

    successive grade until it is 11.3% in grade 12.(See Figure 2.) During the last five years, theconcentration of ELs in the lower grades hasdeclined very slightly and in the higher gradeshas increased very slightly.

    Data on first-time CELDT takers indi-cate the entry point of students whoseprimary languag