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State: District Fails English Learners

Some Sequoia instructors say ESL students should be evenly spread throughout the district to change results.


Students in the Sequoia Union High School district who are learning to speak English tested below the state Department of Education's target scores for proficiency and comprehension, according to the lastest assessment.

This is the fourth consecutive year that the district's students have scored below the goals set by the state for students developing English communication skills, said the district's head of the English learner program Hector Rico at the board of trustees meeting this week. This means changing the program is imminent.

According to public documents, 22% of the students enrolled in the district are learning English; that group comprises nearly one quarter of the students enrolled at Sequoia, Menlo-Atherton and Woodside High Schools.

The state lumps English learners into four subcategories: beginners, intermediates with less than five years of English training, intermediates with more than five years of English training, and students who have received extensive English training but cannot be considered proficient until they meet test score goals in math and english language arts.

District students in every subcategory scored below the state targets.

51 percent of beginners met state standards, falling just a few percentage points shy of the target, which is 54.6%

About 15 percent of the intermediate students with less than five years of English lessons met the state goal, which is to have 18.7 percent of students pass the exam.

Intermediate students with more than five years of English under their belts scored about two percentage points shy of the state goal of 43.2 percent, at 41.5 percent passing.

Not all students with extensive English experience met state goals. Only 41.5 percent passed, although the state goal is 66.7 percent.  About the same amount passed the math test, .2 less, failing to reach the 66.1 percent passing rate goal set by the state.

As a result, the state is requiring the district to modify its curriculum for English learners in order to achieve better test results.

That process has already begun, said Rico, who is working along with Assistant Superintendent Morgan Marchbanks and fellow administrators, teachers and other district staff to develop lessons that improve the achievement of district students.

"What we are planning to do is see if there are any holes and gaps specific for English learners and then address those," said Rico.

The San Mateo County Office of Education is expected to track the district's progress in implementing effective programs and lessons that are designed to assist English learners, according to public documents.

Initial meetings with county representatives indicate that the department of education believes district has begun making progress to that end, said Rico.  The district stands to receive up to $195,501 this year in grant funding to support its English learning program. And though the State maintains the authority to withhold a majority of that money, Rico said he does not anticipate such an extreme step would be taken.

Rico said he was optimistic that the district is taking steps in the right direction toward improving proficiency scores, but some trustees did not express the same enthusiasm. Following Rico's report, Trustee Chris Thomsen said that he did not see a specific strategy put forth that provides an in-depth illustration of how the district will address its failing test scores.

He suggested that the district consider distributing its population of English learners across all comprehensive campuses, since those students comprise only 10% of the enrollment Carlmont High School.

And though Superintendent Jim Lianides expressed concerns with that philosophy, trustee Don Gibson echoed Thomsen's sentiments regarding the need to implement extreme measures in order to improve achievement.

"You almost need to be drastic," said Gibson. "Unless we really say, 'we are going to be here inevitably.' I know we are doing a lot of stuff. But at the same time, it needs to have more of a sense of urgency."

Trustee Olivia Martinez said that those administrators responsible for tracking the district's progress should be more involved on the campuses to ensure that teachers are integrating lessons that are aligned with the attempt to improve achievement of English learners.

"I love the plan. But at some point, there needs to be some congruence of what is going on in the classroom," she said.

Rico and Marchbanks will report back to the board in January with a more detailed plan of action on how to improve student achievement. 

Claire Felong November 19, 2011 at 06:47 PM
It's a little harder to come in at High School level and take in difficult subjects in a foreign language. Perhaps a semester of intensive language and one or two easy courses. They might end up being a year or a semester behind but that is no longer unusual. It also seems that kids that start or finish school at a later age are a little more mature and do better.

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