Mountain View Whisman School District students learning English saw their language proficiency languish or even regress last year, with a steep decline among students attending the district's choice programs -- Mistral and Stevenson elementary schools, according to a recent report.
District officials say more needs to be done to ensure its students are proficient in English by fifth grade, calling it a surefire way to close the achievement gap. The district's revised goal states that 75% of English learners should to be fluent in the language after attending district schools for six years.
Reaching fluency in English is one of the most significant factors in academic achievement, with Mountain View students who have yet to master reading, writing and speaking English falling far behind their peers in both math and English language arts, according to years of standardized testing data. Ensuring students learn English as quickly as possible came to the fore as a top priority for the school board in 2016, and district administrators launched several new programs aimed at improving language fluency.
That goal aimed to fix something that was broken: In 2015, a report by a consulting firm blasted the district for having English language development programs that were "ineffective, inconsistent, and, in many cases, counterproductive." Parents of English learners told school board members at the time that they worried their children were languishing in remedial classes, permanently behind their peers and missing out on enrichment activities like elective classes.
Three years and several initiatives later, district officials say there are still "issues" that need to be resolved, with many of the district's English learners still falling behind and failing to reach reclassification -- a formal designation for students who have reached fluency and no longer need special instructional support for English language development.
Although each school district determines the terms for reclassification a little differently, the shared metric is the state's English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC) test. Acing the test with a performance level of "four" is the gateway for students seeking to reclassify as fluent, according to district staff.
Following a cohort of 583 English learners from the 2017-18 school year to the 2018-19 school year, district staff found that 24% of the students made improvements on the ELPAC test, while 47% remained at the same level and 29% did worse. The biggest losses were students transitioning from kindergarten to first grade and first grade to second grade.
The percentage of students who reached performance level four decreased at every school site except Monta Loma, according to district data. The percent of students who met the standard at Mistral sank from 48% of the students to 27%, followed by Stevenson, which dropped from 74% to 48%.
"We saw that students were regressing -- the majority of our students," said Heidi Smith, the district's director of English learner program, at the Sept. 19 school board meeting.
After the school board meeting last month, Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph told the Voice that district administrators need to be "intentional" about getting kids to reclassification, and that many of the academic support programs are already in place.
But he said a lack of coordination and failure to help kids who are close to reclassification get over the final hurdles is suppressing the number of kids reaching English fluency.
The district has launched several academic initiatives in recent years to bring up English literacy rates, including individualized education classes called Response to Instruction (RTI) and teacher training in a language-focused instructional model called Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). At the Sept. 19 board meeting, Smith said these programs are all successful in their own right, but the way they've been implemented isn't working.
"We realize these efforts are in isolation and aren't working in concert the way they should," Smith said.
Rudolph suggested that the district may need to restructure its process for reclassification, giving students who succeed on the ELPAC test multiple opportunities to meet the remaining criteria to be deemed fluent. In addition to the standardized test, students must also receive a teacher's recommendation, a parent agreement and a second "objective measurement" determined by the district's assessments that shows the student no longer needs support in English language development.
The new goal recommended by Rudolph and district administrators is that 75% of English learner students who entered the district in kindergarten should be reclassified as fluent by fifth grade, increasing to 85% by eighth grade.
That's a high bar compared to other school districts around the state. In California's largest district, Los Angeles Unified, about 64% of students who spent six years in the district reclassified as English fluent, according to data spanning 14 years and more than one million students. Research shows it generally takes students between four and seven years to reach academic English proficiency needed to meet grade-level content.
Board members worried that the high bar was still too low, at least in the context of Mountain View Whisman. After all, as of the 2018-19 school year, 78% of students who enrolled in kindergarten had reclassified as of fifth grade -- exceeding the standard recommended by staff. In other words, the school district is already exceeding its own prospective goal for English learners.
"Why would we set a goal below what has already happened, before we have even taken a close look?" asked trustee Devon Conley.
Rudolph caution that the performance last year is not a sign of things to come, and that the 78% reclassification figure was unusually high. What's more, he said the state assessments for measuring English language fluency completely shifted in 2018 with the roll-out of ELPAC, which could be more challenging than prior standards.
District administrators are also hoping to remedy the precipitous drop in English proficiency among English learners at Mistral Elementary, home to the district's Dual Immersion language program. The school previously taught students in lower grade levels in primarily Spanish, which Rudolph said was delaying Spanish-speaking students from getting the English skills they needed to reclassify. He argues that delaying substantive amounts of testing and exposure to English until fourth and fifth grade automatically puts English learners behind on reaching English fluency.
"At the time when we had the greatest opportunity to reclassify kids, which is younger grades, we're not doing it," he said.
Converting Dual Immersion to a so-called "50/50" model that evenly splits instruction between Spanish and English from kindergarten through fifth grade at the school should give English learners a boost, he said.