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Study: ELLs Who Reach Proficiency Quickly Fare Better

English learners who complete language-acquisition courses—whether through an English-as-a-second-language program or bilingual education—within three years go on to have much more academic success than their peers who remain in such courses for five or more years.

A new study from researchers at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute and Vanderbilt University in Nashville came to that conclusion after examining student data from Texas. The data set tracks all students from 1st grade through high school graduation and beyond.

The authors examined three key groups of students. One was the "on-time" cohort—those students who entered first grade in 1995 and advanced to 12th grade without ever failing a grade. That group was broken down into two subgroups: those who were ever classifed as ELLs and those who were not. A second group of "all students" included those who were identified each year as being in the same grade as the on-time cohort. These students could have transferred from another state, failed the previous grade, or entered the Texas system for the first time in later grades. This group was also broken down into those who were ever classifed as ELLs and those who were not. The third study group consisted of students identified as ELLs, but whose parents opted for them to participate in English-only courses.

So-called "quick-exiter" English learners who attended Texas public schools for all 12 grades produced the strongest results among all ELL groups for meeting the state's basic math- and reading-proficiency standards. It's not surprising that the scholars found that long-term ELLs—those who've been in ELL programs for five or more years—were far behind in every grade level.

We know anecdotally and from research that English learners who do not achieve enough language proficiency within a few years usually languish academically and are among the most likely students to drop out of school.

But it's rare to find states or local school districts with policies that specifically address the unique needs of long-term ELLs. Californians Together, an advocacy group in California, is pushing policymakers in that state to do just that because as many as 25 percent of English learners there are long-term ELLs.

It's also the case that most of these students are U.S.-born and often don't seem to be English learners because they speak relatively well and without accents. What they lack, in most cases, is the more demanding academic language and literacy that's required to be reclassified as fluent.

There's much, much more in this study to chew on as well. For example, the authors found that Hispanic ELLs who opt out of ESL or bilingual education programs in favor of English-only courses may be disadvantaged when it comes to enrolling in college. They also found that black students who were ever ELLs (known as "ever-ELLs") are more likely to graduate from high school than their native English-speaking black peers.

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