Arizona’s system for educating English Learners has undergone substantial restructuring in the past 12 years, including new funding levels and formulas. While this has resulted in changes to some long-languishing but important indicators of success for many of these students, other crucial indicators have changed only incrementally.

The state’s current system evolved after the “English for the Children” ballot initiative was passed by Arizona voters in 2000, mandating the statewide use of English immersion. A major issue raised by supporters of the plan was the very low reclassification rate for English learners: With fewer than 10 percent of these students successfully transitioning to English proficiency each year, a student entering Arizona public schools in kindergarten with poor English skills was seen as more likely to drop out of school than to learn English.

Such persistently low reclassification rates for English learners result in two serious problems for students who remain in these programs: segregation in separate classrooms with minimal interaction with English-speaking classmates, and reduced access to high-quality learning opportunities consistent with state content standards. For a majority of English learners currently in Arizona schools, these problems continue to characterize their daily school experience.

Today, all Arizona public schools are required to use Structured English Immersion models developed by the state’s ELL Task Force. The approved models require that all English learners receive four daily hours of English language development. They were designed with the goal of moving as many of them as possible to English proficiency, and mainstream classrooms, in one year.

Placement is determined exclusively by a child’s score on the Arizona English Language Learner Assessment proficiency test (AZELLA). The annually-administered test includes verbal, reading and writing sections, cannot be retaken, and is the only data teachers or administrators may use to determine a child’s classroom setting. Those that pass are moved into mainstream classes, aligned with state content standards across different subjects, with varying amounts of targeted remediation and supplemental enrichment.

The rates of reclassification to English proficiency have improved dramatically, and the statewide average of 31 percent for 2009 and 2010 is among the nation’s highest (although states use different tests and standards). But the program’s rigid structure seems to be proving particularly problematic for students who do not reach the program’s goal of proficiency in their first year.

As hearings of the ELL Task Force have documented, the remaining English learners are broadly and uniformly segregated from their English-speaking peers. Often the elementary-level ELLs are effectively separated for the entire school day, as schools lack meaningful opportunities to re-integrate them after their four-hour requirement is completed.

Especially for those at the intermediate level of English, this severely constrains their access to curriculum aligned with state academic content standards (access which is required by federal law). It also deprives them of valuable opportunities to interact verbally with native English-speakers, to which anyone who has studied a second language can attest offers important advantages toward linguistic assimilation.

Making matters worse, a 2011 report by the Arizona Auditor General found that the structured English Immersion models were broadly out of compliance statewide. The major complaints noted were that programs were being incompletely implemented (38 percent did not provide grammar instruction), nearly half fell short of offering four hours of actual English language development daily, and 27 percent of classrooms lacked qualified teachers.

Why not reduce the four-hour model to two hours in the second and subsequent years for all English learners at the intermediate English level? This was the substance of one worthwhile improvement proposed to the task force last year by noted English immersion authority Christine Rossell, the Boston University professor who served as state’s expert in the Horne v. Flores court case over ELL education. Segregationist classroom policies, whatever their stated purpose, are a harmful barrier to learning that should be eradicated everywhere, and especially where early English learning is the main objective.

For the thousands of English learners who remain in their segregated setting year after year, current trends offer little reason for optimism. On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 86 percent of Arizona’s fourth-grade English leaners scored at woeful “below basic” levels in English reading, up from 81 percent in 2003. While the rest of the nation has demonstrated progress reducing its rate of English learners at this lowest level of achievement, such gains have eluded Arizona.

There can hardly be a student population more crucial to the state’s future, educationally or economically. It makes sense that the programs to bring them to English proficiency continue to improve accordingly.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Washington, DC. E-mail him at

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