English learners excel after becoming proficient

English learners excel after becoming proficient

(N.Y.) Schools may be serving English learners better that previously thought, according to new research which shows dramatic gains in reading and math among children in grades four through eight.

Researchers from New York University and Oregon State examined the outcomes of current English learners as well as those who have been reclassified as proficient in the language. They then compared those outcomes to those of their non-English learner peers.

They found that student scores of those deemed current or former English learners on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and reading rose two to three times faster since 2003 than those of students who only speak English at home.

Specifically, gaps between students who only spoke English and their multilingual peers in fourth grade closed by 24 percent in reading and 37 percent in math from 2003 to 2015. Among children in eighth grade, the gaps closed by 27 percent in reading and 39 percent in math during that time.

"It does seem to question the dominant narrative that English-learners are perpetually really struggling and schools are perpetually failing to serve their needs," report author Michael Kieffer, an associate professor at New York University said in a statement. "If we look at this trend over time, I think we're seeing that schools are doing a better job of serving English-learners, including getting them reclassified in earlier grades, and then we see the latest successes."

By definition, English learners are not yet proficient in listening, speaking, reading or writing in English. As a result, their performance on content-area assessments administered in English. Students are moved out of the subgroup once they attain English proficiency and are returned to the mainstream classroom.

Authors of the report said that when it comes to studying achievement gaps, focusing on the scores of only those students currently classified as English learners can produce misleading conclusions about whether districts are getting better or worse in serving these learners.

Kieffer and Thompson included multilingual students–those identified by their schools as speaking another language or languages other than English at home–in their findings, in order to ensure the group included students currently classified as English learners and those formerly classified as such.

Because not every state tracks English learners after they reach proficiency–and because the criteria for doing so differs widely among states that do–authors of the report used National Assessment of Educational Progress data. They identified about 22 percent of kindergartners who were multilingual.

They found that 5 percent were already proficient in English when they started school, but 17 percent began classified as English learners. While native English speakers also saw an improvement in reading and math scores between 2003 and 2015, English learners or those formerly classified as such made significantly more progress–ultimately closing achievement gaps by upwards of 20 percent.

By the time they reached fourth grade, multilingual students had reduced the achievement gap between themselves and their English-only-speaking peers in math by 37 percent, and in reading by 24 percent. By eighth grade, gaps in math were reduced by 39 percent, and reading by 27 percent.

Although authors of the study didn’t provide definitive causes for their findings, Kieffer suggested the students’ academic improvement over the years is likely tied to an array of policy and instructional changes since 2003. For example, emphasizing English learner instruction in teacher credentialing, expanding access to and improving dual-language programs, and increased school accountability for improving the language proficiency of English-learners all could have had a hand in producing such results, he said.