Advocacy group to act as ‘watchdog’ for Arizona English-language learners

Mar 30, 2023, 4:25 AM | Updated: 1:15 pm

(Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)...

(Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

(Photo by Gordon Chibroski/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — A children’s advocacy group plans to monitor State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne’s efforts related to instruction for English-language learners, saying they’re concerned he’ll overstep his authority.

“Not only are we going to watch all of the things coming out of the Department of Education, which he heads as the state superintendent, we’re going to be a watchdog,” Daniel Hernandez, government affairs director at Stand for Children in Arizona, told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

Hernandez said he’s concerned Horne “has been talking a lot about going back to the good old days” when he was last state superintendent in the early 2000s.

Meanwhile, Horne said he supports the current statute for English language learning instruction that requires English immersion. It’s the dual language option that’s available to students that he questions.

“In order to learn English, you have to be immersed in English,” Horne said. “You can’t learn English if you’re talking Spanish a good part of the day.”

In 2000, Arizona voters approved Prop. 203 to require that ELL students only be allowed “a minimal amount” of instruction in their native language as they learn English.

The ballot measure also required students to remain in English immersion classes – and away from regular classrooms – until they “acquired a good working knowledge of English.”

That paved the way for a four-hour block of structured English immersion requirement for ELL students in Arizona, which Hernandez said led to “a couple of negative outcomes.”

“We were literally pulling and segregating kids who are English-language learners from the rest of the instruction that was happening, whether it was math, arts, science or music,” he said.

In 2019, then-Gov. Doug Ducey approved bipartisan legislation to cut down the mandatory four hours of English immersion to two hours.

It also gave schools the option to choose from four English language learning models created by the State Board of Education. Schools can design and submit proposals for their own models as well.

Horne said he has no objections to the current laws for English language learning. However, he questions the dual language immersion model, which allows students to get half of the content instruction in English and the other half in Spanish or another language.

“The first job is to learn English,” Horne said. “Until the student tests on the test we call AZELLA as proficient, the student needs to be in classes that teach English.”

This comes as English language learners are consistently underperforming. The latest statewide test results from the 2020-21 school year show 5% of ELL students were proficient in 3rd grade reading and 3% were proficient in 8th grade math.

Additionally, 55% of ELL students graduated high school in 2021 compared to 76% for all students.

“We are failing these kids if we’re not giving them the best English language instruction and the best overall instruction,” Hernandez said.

He added he’s hopeful ELL students will start performing better academically now that schools can choose from four English language learning models.

“We are about two years into the models being in existence, so we need to give it a couple of years to see improvements,” Hernandez said.

Horne agreed that test scores for ELL students are unacceptable.

“They have the same academic capabilities, obviously, as any other students,” he said. “The solution in them learning English faster.”

Horne added he’s planning to provide more trainings for teachers on how to teach English language learners.

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Advocacy group to act as ‘watchdog’ for Arizona English-language learners