Principals often have little time to decide what grade in which to place older immigrant English-language learners entering U.S. schools for the first time, but their choices can have long-term affects on students' academic achievement, according to a new study published in the October issue of the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis.
While more states have standardized screening procedures for placing English-language learners, older, immigrant, so-called "newcomer" ELLs remain a challenge, as their language needs may be coupled with differences in international curriculums or even missed years of schooling.
Dylan Conger, an associate professor in public policy in education at George Washington University in the District of Columbia, studied nearly 14,000 English-learners ages 7 to 12, who entered the Miami-Dade public schools in Florida from 2003 to 2007. More than 40 percent spoke Spanish, with a smattering of Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Chinese, and other languages.
Conger found students placed in a lower grade than their age were less likely to be poor but more likely to be disabled, male, or to have scored higher on their initial English-language proficiency exam. These students were more likely to come from Cuban or Haitian Creole families than other Spanish-speaking families, such as Mexican. Higher-poverty students and those who scored at or below the "novice" level on their English-language entrance exams were more likely to be placed in the higher grade.
The assignments were unexpected, Conger noted: "If school administrators sought to make the transition less difficult for low-income newcomers, one would expect them to be disproportionately assigned to the lower of the two grades," and the same was true of students with initially poor English skills.
By contrast, while the Cuban students in the study were disproportionately poor and of low English proficiency, Conger said, they tended to be placed in higher grades. Conger was unable to say for sure why, but said, "It is possible that their parents are more likely to advocate for the more rigorous schooling context than the parents of migrants from other countries. It is also possible that teachers and other administrators use students' Cuban-origin as a signal of academic skill."
Regardless of placement, ELL newcomers scored significantly lower than the district average on standardized tests: at the 33rd percentile in math and the 20th percentile in reading. So did grade placement make a difference? When it came to language development, no; newcomer ELLs progressed in English-language fluency and reading at similar paces over the next two years whether they were placed in higher or lower grades initially, and they were equally likely to have been reclassified as being proficient in English two years later.
However, newcomer ELLs placed in lower grades performed 24 to 28 percentile points better, on average, in math than their peers placed into higher grades. Among non-Cuban Spanish-speaking newcomers, for example, those placed in the lower grades performed nearly 36 percentile points higher than their peers placed in higher grades.
Previous curriculum analyses have suggested math concepts become more complex and conceptually difficult from grade to grade than do reading concepts, which Conger said might help to explain the differences between reading and math performance for the newcomers. Moreover, she noted English-language learners may be exposed to English outside of school more than math, reducing the effects of grade choice on language and reading.