Sept. 2022 Advocate: Legislation Shortchanges Language Learners

Legislation on “Remedial” Ed

AB 705 and 1705: Legislation for “equity” shortchanges language learners

by Leigh Anne Shaw, Professor, ESOL, Skyline College

English language learners nationwide have historically faced inequitable access to higher education, but California has always been different. Our 116 colleges have, until now, included robust offerings in English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL, or ESL). Since AB 705’s implementation in 2019, credit ESOL section offerings and enrollment have plummeted (ICAS 2020) despite continued need. How did “progressive” legislation to broaden access demolish service to language learners?

In a world emphasizing money and time, legislators don’t want to subsidize “empty calorie” units like ESOL. They see ESOL as an expensive barrier, trotting out statistics showing how ESOL learners take longer to complete their pathways. Of course they do; academic fluency in a language takes time. Legislators do not want to pay for that time, so they cut English language learners loose and shift focus to native speakers, who can be pushed through the pathway more quickly and cheaply.

ESOL is not the remedial coursework that AB 705, 1705, and 1805 address; it is a foreign language to those learning it. A non-transferable ESOL class is as rigorous as a transferable World Languages class. Students transferring with four semesters of Spanish do not proceed to take all of their subsequent coursework in that language, while students completing four semesters of ESOL do exactly that. Degree-bound ESOL learners must then take additional units of a transferable foreign language, taught in English, because their ESOL doesn’t transfer. When transfer-reformers decry adding unnecessary units onto transfer, why aren’t they pushing the UC and CSU to count ESOL rightfully as a foreign language?

Then, there’s placement. Any quality language program needs a placement test to match students to coursework. Under AB 705, however, students may opt out of placement tests, making accurate course recommendations difficult. ESOL can still use approved placement tests, but the state isn’t required to approve new tests as old ones expire. There is one approved test left on the list, and it expires in 2023; recent memos show the state is not approving more. Colleges cannot place students into a pre-collegiate course without demonstrating the student would be unsuccessful without it. Conveniently, by removing placement assessment, that data is impossible to gather, so the proponents of these bills never have to acknowledge that some students might need pre-collegiate coursework such as ESOL.

These bills create inequity by denying the existence of ESOL learners. Students who are placed directly into transfer-level English (TLE) per AB 705 rules are never identified as language learners in the first place. This means colleges have zero data points to show whether success in TLE, or lack thereof, had anything to do with language proficiency. By the time a student’s language needs are discovered, they are on a fast-moving educational plan. Backtracking to ESOL will waste time. The proponents of these bills never get to see the numbers of unserved English language learners and thus never have to evaluate the choice to force everyone into a one-size-fits-all pathway.

AB 705’s partner bill, AB 1805 (2018), requires informing students of their ESOL options. This is great, if ESOL students have the language proficiency to understand the affidavit they sign. But proposed AB 1705 will effectively render moot that provision by preventing counselors from even discussing pre-collegiate course options such as ESOL.

How is this serving high school language learners? K-12 schools are required to assess and categorize language learners as “Limited English Proficient (LEP)” or “Fluent English Proficient (FEP).” But FEP status does not necessarily mean “fluency.” It only gives “an arbitrary threshold of English language proficiency (typically the 36th percentile on a standardized test)” so that schools can “mainstream” students into regular classes (Rumbaut 1995).  Thus, students can and do arrive to college still needing English. Yet, under AB 705 placement rules, any student who has spent any time in a U.S. high school is automatically placed into transfer-level English regardless of English proficiency.

And what about adult learners? High school students only make up 30% of ESOL statewide. Fully 70% of ESOL is adults, many with foreign degrees and no high school ID marker. By eliminating placement testing, colleges blend adult ESOL learners into the background. Matriculation is structured for high school students, not nuanced for non-traditional adults. The RP Group, whose research powers the bills, admits they have no data on adult ESOL learners because it’s too difficult to ascertain, so they leave them out of success data analysis. That’s how ESOL becomes marginalized by bills ironically designed to create greater equity.

Indeed, AB 705 (2017), AB 1805 (2018) and AB 1705 (proposed) talk a good game about serving those privileged enough to call English their mother tongue. Eliminating assessments that forced native-speakers of color to languish in remedial education was the right thing to do. But nearly 90% of ESOL learners are students of color (NCES 2015), and there are no equity discussions about them. These bills deny ESOL learners equity by ignoring their language-learner status.

Preventing ESOL learners from appropriate placement into language pathways is myopic and reckless. It is a systemic choice that reveals the state’s value of native English speakers over English learners. Colleges cannot proudly wave the flag of equity while ignoring the needs of English language learners.



ICAS 2020. Bean, M. V., Carr, N., Kern, R., Lee, J. W., Maldonado, M., & Shaw, L. A. (2020). ESL Students in California Public Higher Education: 2020 Update. ICAS ESL Task Force.

NCES (2015). Indicator 8: English Language Learners in Public Schools. National Center for Education Statistics.

Rumbaut, R. (1995) The New Californians: Comparative Research Findings on the Educational Progress of Immigrant Children.