Oakland schools are now in their second year of running a new testing process that will allow students who are identified as English Language Learners (ELL) and who have special needs to have better chances of joining mainstream English-language classrooms for students with and without disabilities.
Currently, special education students who are also English learners must take a test to show that they are fluent in English. This standardized test evaluates the student’s English literacy level, and is only available once a year. The test does not take into consideration the student’s overall progress and work throughout the rest of the year, or a teacher or parent’s observation of their progress. This test can be very stressful for a student with a major disability, and does not take into consideration how the disability itself can affect the student’s score.
“It is extremely important that the students are not punished for their disability,” said Heather Stephens said in an email to Oakland North, about the difference having a disability makes when taking a language proficiency test. Stephens is a resource specialist at United for Success Academy, a middle school in the Fruitvale, which is part the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).
The OUSD has begun trying a new testing process called “individualized reclassification” meant to make the test more manageable for students with disabilities. The new system takes into consideration the level of a student’s disabilities and is based on the students’ academic progress over an extended period of time. With the new process, the students have to demonstrate English proficiency over the course of the school year. This is proven through their academic grades, and the feedback from their parents, teachers and staff members who work with them.
The system is an option for students whose disability is severe, or its functional impact impedes them from passing the standard test. “Any disability might interfere with the reclassification process, based on a child’s unique education and language needs,” said Anne Zarnowiecki , network administrator for the Special Education Department at OUSD, which serves students with a wide range of disabilities, such as those with speech, visual and motor impairments.
“Let’s say they have a reading disability that is pretty significant and that they weren’t going to be able to demonstrate proficiency in reading, whether in their native language or English,” said Zarnowiecki. “It would stop them from reclassifying because their disability is blocking their reading performance. That does not end up being an ELL issue—it ends up being an issue about their disability.”
Failing the test would prevent them from moving from a special education classroom into a mainstream one. “Some of our students are actually being impeded [from reclassification] because of their disability,” said Zarnowiecki.
The first formal reclassification occurred this school year, and according to the OUSD English Language Learner And Multilingual Achievement (ELLMA) Office, there will be three or four total for the year.
This process was created by the OUSD and is a part of the state’s requirement to deliver data on students who are ELL and those who have a disability. According to Zarnowiecki, the new process comes as a response of the issue of equity. “The individualized reclassification process allows teams to explain how the child’s disability might be making it more difficult for the child to score ‘proficient’ on standardized tests,” said Zarnowiecki.
Reclassifying students into the English proficiency pool is expected to be beneficial for them in the long run, as OUSD reports show that students to perform at a higher level throughout their time in primary and secondary school.
“We have found in our own data story that our Reclassified Fluent English Proficient (or RFEP) students are our highest academic performers, above even our “English Only” students. They tend to have the highest graduation rates, the highest standardized test scores, and strongest literacy rates, excepting only initially FEP students (those who enter OUSD schools fluent in English and speak another language at home)” wrote Nicole Knight, executive director of ELLMA, in an email to Oakland North.
Since the new test was adopted, the OUSD has trained staff members and communicated with parents about the process, as well worked out the new system’s logistics. “This task didn’t used to include the SPED (special education) teachers and now I feel like we are expected to contributed a high amount of input and data,” wrote Stephens in an email to Oakland North.
The new process is in its early stages, and Stephens pointed out that it has some practical difficulties—for example, having to fill out digital documents can be inconvenient, because staff members have to use data from different places.
However, she thinks that having a more curated testing process for students with disabilities has a positive outcome. Having the new process, she wrote, “allows us to truly individualize their education and gives them access to the same electives as their peers.”