Arizona English Language Learner Program Report

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The Arizona Office of the Auditor General released a new report that says the number of students learning the English language in Arizona schools has dropped in recent years as fewer children entered the immersion program. Dr Robert Donofrio, Associate Vice President for the ASU Office of the Vice President for Education Partnerships, talks about the report.

Richard Ruelas: The Arizona office of the auditor general released a report stating that almost two-thirds of the school districts and charter schools reviewed had not fully implemented the structured English language learner program that was adopted in 2008. The report also found that the number of students learning the English language dropped in recent years. With me to talk about the report and the ELL program in Arizona schools is Dr. Robert Donofrio, associate vice president for the ASU office of the vice president for education partnerships. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Robert Donofrio: Good to be here.

Richard Ruelas: Well, there's a lot to chew on in this audit, which I assume you're familiar with.

Dr. Robert Donofrio: Yeah.

Richard Ruelas: I know you've been studying this issue for years. What do you make of the drop in English language learning students in Arizona?

Dr. Robert Donofrio: Well, I think the report certainly didn't reflect all of the issues. For one thing, we know that a number of our immigrant populations are leaving schools. They're leaving Arizona. So right there, you have a drop, this is not an immigration of friendly state and they're moving and pulling their kids. You can go to every district and see a decline. I think secondly, they've -- they've changed the tests so many times, the language proficiency test.

Richard Ruelas: That's the test that determines whether someone is eligible for ELL or go into a regular classroom?

Dr. Robert Donofrio: Absolutely correct. And so you have that issue where, you know, the test itself has been challenged under the civil rights act and is now in -- I guess you would call mediation with the state department of Ed that the test is not appropriate and it needs to be revised.

Richard Ruelas: I think in a story I saw, went from asking three questions about language proficiency to one.

Dr. Robert Donofrio: That's the issue, the third issue is something we fought as part of an English language learners practice. Some of the experts in the districts we worked with, and wrote a letter to superintendent Horne at the time saying this would deny a number of students even the right to have the proficiency test given to them. So when you take the immigration issue and when you take the changes in tests and change the flow, the three questions we've always asked, I've been here four years and we've always asked those three questions and arbitrarily he makes the decision, so many kids -- now, there was a clause --

Richard Ruelas: That three-question test we're talking about essentially gets the student into the process.

Dr. Robert Donofrio: It's the answer to one -- if the answer to one of those is other than English, so --

Richard Ruelas: Right.

Dr. Robert Donofrio: -- it's the question -- the first language, what was the first language. What is the language of the student. And the third is what is the language spoken in the home.

Dr. Robert Donofrio: And the one question now?

Richard Ruelas: The one question is the student.

Dr. Robert Donofrio: What language does the student speak? If they say English --

Richard Ruelas: They don't go to the proficiency testing. We have fewer students because for all these reasons. Is there evidence that shows that the program itself, English immersion, is working and getting students to test out by doing immersion classroom work?

Dr. Robert Donofrio: If you look at the auditor's report, I would say no. You know, to be fair, to the state department, you know, the program is now just in its third year, but, you know, people get very confused between proficiency testing language and content, how the students do. It's one thing to learn English, and it's another thing to be able to take high-test accountable and if you look at the number of students passing the test that have been exited, it's terrible. It was 21% and 32%. Based on that data, I would say, no, the program is not working.

Richard Ruelas: There's fewer students in it but the students in the English language learning programs, about 21% or 31% are actually learning enough English to test out?

Dr. Robert Donofrio: Yeah.

Richard Ruelas: Where did the numbers used to be in the days before we had -- in the days of bilingual education or the days before the immersion-only program?

Dr. Robert Donofrio: You can't compare apples and oranges, because back then, students could take alternative testing.

Richard Ruelas: Ok.

Dr. Robert Donofrio: So we had parallel English and Spanish testing. And, you know, that's - you know the debate over bilingual education. And there's a ton of research --

Richard Ruelas: I guess this was supposed to be -- this could be a model to show whether English immersion works but looks like from the report, not every school or hardly -- about half the schools are not implementing all of the phases of the English immersion. 63% are not fully implementing it. 45% don't provide four hours of English language development. 38% don't have grammar instruction or qualified ELL teachers. 27%. Which of these elements that schools are not doing is most concerning to you if you were actually trying to see whether immersion works or not?

Dr. Robert Donofrio: I'm not a big believer in immersion. My grandfather came here and they didn't have any ESL classes and it was immersion on his own. He struggled with the language his whole life. I would say the biggest thing is the four-hour block.

Richard Ruelas: If we were going to see if immersion is working, you'd want it see children having four hours of immersion --

Dr. Robert Donofrio: No, I would not want them. I would want them to be integrated in with students who speak English. Most of our students learn English from their peers as well as from programs.

Richard Ruelas: But if you were going to see if English immersion works, if you were going to run the test to see if the model works, to you the most important part of the implementation would be the time spent in English language immersion program? That would be the test to see whether it would worked?

Dr. Robert Donofrio: Definitely, that would be the test from their perspective. The taskforce that came up with that recommendation. But the -- the large numbers are due to the fact it's very difficult when you only have a five or six hour day and take out recess and lunch and now the students have to be in an isolated classroom, just learning English? What about the other subjects?

Richard Ruelas: Do you think that the fact there are fewer students in the English language immersion program, will that somehow make it better, if the class size element works for normal schools? Will the fact we're dealing with fewer English language learners help overall the number of students acquiring English?

Dr. Robert Donofrio: I'm of the opinion that this whole thing wasn't about English proficiency or the academic performance of second language learners. It was about money. That's what it really got down to. Come on, they're saying in a report they can become proficient in one year? Research says it takes seven to 10 years to learn a language. So I think this is more about funding than it was about -- I mean, Horne went public and said we've got too many ESL kids in the state. So my opinion was this was never planned to make them more proficient, at least academically, it was conversationally speaking Spanish, yeah, I think immersion will do that. But to take high rigorous tests to get out of high school, now we have a new law where if you don't -- if you're not reading at grade level by third grade they'll hold you back until you can pass. I'm not sure immersion is the way to go.

Richard Ruelas: I'm sure there will be other studies and other looks at this program and probably have you back to discuss those too. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. Robert Donofrio: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Dr Robert Donofri:Associate Vice President, ASU Office of the Vice President for Education Partnerships;

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