How LA Unified plans to help schools track English Learners to proficiency

An English Learner attends classes in a school in Arizona.
An English Learner attends classes in a school in Arizona.
Elissa Nadworny/NPR

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Back in her days as principal of a Los Angeles Unified school, Hilda Maldonado remembers sifting through lists of students still learning English, trying to figure out which ones needed help.

She was trying to figure out which of these English learners had checked all three boxes to be officially "reclassified" as proficient in the language: they needed to pass California's language proficiency exam; pass the same standardized tests as their English-speaking peers; and get good grades.

Research shows students who aren't reclassified as English proficient by middle school are at higher risk of never finishing school. But since grades and test scores each came in on different timelines, Maldonado said tracking which English learners needed help on a particular requirement was cumbersome.

"I would have to sit and highlight reports and try to make these groupings," she remembered. L.A. Unified has more than 140,000 English Learners, and principals like Maldonado were making these groupings by hand.

That changes this year. A new tool will make its debut in the district's central student data system, MiSiS, that will give principals monthly reports on English learners' progress and allow them to track individual students with just a few clicks.

For Maldonado, who now oversees multilingual and multicultural education for all of L.A. Unified, it means district office administrators can use data to better determine which schools need the most help serving their English learner populations.

In her State of the District speech on Wednesday, L.A. Unified Superintendent Michelle King promised to "focus on increasing reclassification rates and set goals for improvement so that every Kindergartner will be reclassified by the fifth grade."

During the 2015-16 school year, the most recent state data show around 16,300 English learners in L.A. Unified progressed enough to be reclassified as proficient. That's a smaller number than in 2014-15, when more than 27,000 English learners were reclassified.

Maldonado likened the scale of the effort to what other officials have called an "all-hands-on-deck" approach aimed at increasing L.A. Unified's graduation rate.

While King's speech did not include precise goals, the district's Local Control Accountability Plan does call for increasing the reclassification rate to 20 percent by 2019-20 — up from 17 percent in 2014-15. L.A. school board member Mónica García said King's statement in support of reclassification by fifth grade was "huge."

"This subgroup does represent a huge pocket of kids who rely on us," García said. "We have seen over and over when kids reclassify by the sixth grade, they get to graduation. When they do not, we put them in a very difficult place."

In L.A. Unified, 24 percent of English learners have been working for five years or more to attain proficiency.