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English-Learners Aren't 'Perpetually Struggling,' We Just Aren't Gauging Their Progress, Study Finds

Current and former English-language learners have made significant progress in the past 15 years on the test dubbed the "Nation's Report Card"—improving faster than English-only students.

That's the takeaway from a study released this morning in the journal Education Researcher. Michael Kieffer, an associate professor at New York University, and Karen Thompson, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, found that 4th and 8th grade multilingual students' scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in math and reading have risen two to three times faster since 2003 than those of students who speak only English at home.

It's a striking finding, considering most studies of English-learners have found persistent achievement gaps between English-learners and native-English-speaking students. When researchers included not just current ELLs, but also former English-learners who had since gained proficiency in the language, they found the gap between English-only and multilingual 4th graders closed by 24 percent in reading and 37 percent in math from 2003 to 2015. For 8th-graders, 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," Kieffer said. "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." 

While some states do track English-learners after they reach proficiency, the criteria for doing so differs widely from state to state, making it difficult to compare performance across states. The researchers instead used NAEP data to identify about 22 percent of kindergartners who were reported as speaking a language other than English at home. Five percent of these students were already proficient in English when they started school, but 17 percent began as ELLs; in a previous study, Kieffer found one-fourth to half of kindergarten ELLs are reclassified as proficient by 4th grade, and 70 percent to 85 percent master the language by 8th grade. Students who previously were ELLs but who have attained English proficiency normally are not counted in studies of the ELL achievement gap.

The results don't reveal what's causing multilingual students to improve, but Kieffer suggested it's likely an array of policy and instructional changes since 2003: higher accountability for English-learners under the No Child Left Behind Act; evolving teacher credentials that put more focus on including ELL instruction; more dual-language programs that brought together English speakers and ELLs; and demographic changes among U.S. schoolchildren that meant more teachers became aware of English-learners in their classes.

"While we didn't look at district data here, a district superintendent certainly could do an analysis of their own data in this way, to get a sense of what their own trends are. One takeaway from this is to be sort of skeptical of data results for current [English learners] and look at how you are reclassifying students and the group as a whole."


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