California is adopting the Observation Protocol for Teachers of English Learners (OPTEL) to help standardize—and make more equitable and consistent—the reclassification of students from English learners to English proficient.

Jointly developed, piloted, and validated by WestEd and the California Department of Education (CDE), the OPTEL received unanimous approval from the State Board of Education on November 8, 2023, to meet the federal requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

“The OPTEL will give educators of English learners across the state a user-friendly and consistent way to gather evidence about students’ language use in the classroom,” said Senior Research Associate at WestEd Molly Faulkner-Bond.

In California, reclassification decisions must be based on four criteria:

  1. The English Language Proficiency Assessments for California (ELPAC)
  2. Teacher input
  3. Parent consultation
  4. An assessment of basic skills

Previously, criteria 2 through 4 were all locally determined, meaning each district chose its own instruments and processes for these criteria. In response to the federal requirement for states to develop standardized entrance and exit procedures for English learner status, the CDE partnered with WestEd to create a tool that would standardize criteria 2 and 3: the OPTEL.

About the OPTEL

The OPTEL tool was designed iteratively and collaboratively by the CDE, WestEd, and educators and leaders from across the state of California. The development process included a usability study, a pilot study, and multiple feedback sessions and meetings in which California educators were invited to review the tool and provide feedback on its clarity, usability, and feasibility.

The tool is designed to support educators in determining and documenting a student’s proficiency during classroom instruction. It captures proficiency in two linguistic dimensions: expressive skills (speaking and writing) and receptive skills (listening and reading). In addition to supporting reclassification decisions, the OPTEL tool is designed to support educators as

  • a formative assessment tool to support student progress toward English proficiency,
  • a tool to use in consultation with parents of EL students regarding their children’s progress toward English language proficiency, and
  • a tool to support the training of educators in teacher preparation programs at institutions of higher education.

The OPTEL comes at a timely moment in national bilingual education initiatives. As part of its Raise the Bar: Create Pathways for Global Engagement, the Biden-Harris administration launched the “Being Bilingual is a Superpower” initiative on November 16 to promote multilingual education and bolster high-quality language programs. By making it easier to gather evidence of student language use and development, the OPTEL is contributing to national efforts to promote high-quality multilingual education.

About the Field Test

WestEd and the CDE conducted a field test of the tool from January through May 2023 to collect evidence of the OPTEL’s usability, reliability, and validity to support reclassification decisions for students for whom English is not the first language.

The field test included 189 educator participants from 45 school districts across the state. Participants held diverse certifications, including multiple subject elementary, English language development, English language arts, and special education.

In a validation study of the field test, the research team found that

  • educators who observed the same student gave that student the same OPTEL ratings a majority of the time,
  • more than 90 percent of students who met the ELPAC standard for reclassification were also rated by teachers as being at one of the highest two levels on the OPTEL, and
  • more than 85 percent of educator participants reported that the OPTEL was easy or very easy to use and clear or very clear to understand and fill out.

Together, these findings suggest that educators are able to use the OPTEL and, even with minimal training, provide reliable, consistent ratings of students’ language use during instruction. This reliability means that students’ experience of the reclassification will be more comparable, and therefore fairer, across the state.

Next Steps

The CDE is excited to support educators in adopting and learning to use the OPTEL. In partnership with several groups and organizations, including the Region 15 Comprehensive Center (R15CC) at WestEd, the CDE is developing a broad campaign to build knowledge about how to use and interpret the OPTEL for reclassification decisions and how the tool can support high-quality instruction for English learners, provide useful information for educators and parents, and further the state’s goals and vision for English learner education.

“The CDE is encouraged by educators’ interest and enthusiasm for the OPTEL to support English learner–classified students,” said Alesha Moreno-Ramirez, director of the Multilingual Support Division at the California Department of Education. “Implementation of the validated, teacher tested OPTEL will help California further standardize reclassification processes and confirm that English learner–classified students are prepared to fully and meaningfully access and participate in a 21st century education.”

The CDE plans to provide a suite of OPTEL-related resources, including webinars, prerecorded training videos, an implementation guide, and a series of vignettes demonstrating how educators can design instructional opportunities that support OPTEL observations; they will then use the OPTEL tool to calibrate judgments about observed language use. The resources will include differentiated foci for elementary and secondary grades and for students with disabilities. They will also align with other CDE initiatives and resources, including the English language development (ELD) Video series, vignettes from the English language arts (ELA)/ELD Framework, and the ELD Standards. With support from the R15CC, the CDE will also continue to gather and analyze input and data from the field to understand the OPTEL’s impact on teaching, learning, and outcomes.