One-third of California's 1.4 million nonnative students demonstrated enough English fluency this year to gain access to higher-level and college-prep course work, a modest improvement over last year, according to data released Wednesday by the state Department of Education.
Increasing limited-English-speaking students' access to more rigorous classes and decreasing the achievement gap between these students and their native classmates are "moral" and "economic" imperatives, said Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.
"If we are to be successful competing in the hyper-competitive global economy, all of our students need to be better prepared," he said. "The achievement gap needs to be closed. We need to have that well-trained, well-educated, analytical, problem-solving workforce if the state of California is going to remain the eighth-largest economic engine in the world."
In the 2007-08 school year, nearly 36% of the state's English learners showed "advanced" or "early advanced" skills on the California English Language Development Test, and 33% performed well enough to be eligible for "reclassification" as fluent. Both are 4% increases over last year. (Earlier comparisons are unavailable because the scoring scale changed last year).
Students who score in the "advanced" or "early advanced" categories and meet other goals can be reclassified as fluent English speakers, offering greater access to higher-level and college-prep course work. Statewide reclassification figures will not be available until summer, but in prior years, far fewer students were deemed fluent than were eligible, which led to criticism of administrators and teachers.
O'Connell said this remains a concern and urged districts to work aggressively to reclassify students who are eligible.
"It really opens up a whole new potential," he said.
The Los Angeles Unified School District nearly mirrored the state figures, with 35% showing "advanced" or "early advanced" skills, a 2% gain over last year. District officials said they were pleased that their results surpassed some of the state's other large school districts, and that their elementary school students showed a 4% increase in performance.
The data will be used for two main purposes -- immediately reviewing the top scorers to see if their grades and other credentials qualify them for reclassification, and school-by-school data analysis, said Esther Wong, assistant superintendent of planning and assessment.
Students in some other large urban districts in Southern California showed improvements but lagged behind their peers statewide. In Long Beach, 28% scored in the top two categories, and 31% in Santa Ana.
James Gulek, an assistant superintendent for the Long Beach Unified School District, said the district's achievement numbers appear lower than the rest of the state because the district moves greater numbers of high-performing students out of English-learner classes and into regular courses compared to other districts in the state.
State data in the last two years confirm that the district's reclassification rate outstripped the state average.
In effect, this siphons away the district's top scorers since they no longer take the test, lowering the district's performance on paper, Gulek said.
Critics noted that even though English proficiency was growing, English learners are performing academically behind their native classmates, a gap they blame on a one-size-fits-all state approach that treats English learners and native speakers the same.
"It's not surprising for us if you take children and put them in an English-only setting, they are going to learn English," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director of Long Beach-based Californians Together, which focuses on improving schooling for English learners. "The real issue is how are they doing academically, not only if they are learning English. The achievement gap is growing."
Instruction, curriculum and textbooks that are specifically tailored for English learners would make a vital difference, she said.