Classifying California's English Learners: Is the CELDT too Blunt an Instrument?

There are 1.6 million English learners (ELs) in California's K-12 public schools, comprising a quarter of California public school students and thirty percent of EL students in the United States. This study provides strong evidence that California school districts are misidentifying large numbers of entering kindergarten students as English learners. California's home language survey over identifies children to be administered the California English Language Development Test (CELDT). Because only about 94 percent of kindergarten students taking the CELDT in 2009-10 were classified English language proficient, being identified to take the CELDT almost guarantees a student's classification as EL. Our findings call into question the validity of the home language survey and the CELDT as the tools for identifying EL students in California.

EL misidentification is important because it means that these students are not receiving the language support and education that is appropriate to their language skills. In addition, in an era of budget crises, it becomes especially vital that scarce language development resources be targeted as effectively as possible. The wide net currently being cast by California's EL classification system in some ways renders the classification itself meaningless, given its application to such a wide range of students. Part of the problem is that there is no clear definition of what constitutes "an English language learner" (Abedi 2008, Abedi & Gándara 2006). That definition is left to district interpretation, resulting in significant variability in classification criteria and rates across the state.