English-Language Learners and Math

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 19, 2008 1 min read
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Though language-minority students scored lower on a 1st grade math assessment than students who speak primarily English at home, the two groups of students made the same gains in math between 1st and 5th grades, according to a study released this week by the National Center for Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education. Language-minority students are children who speak a language other than English at home. The study also found that two different subgroups of language-minority students—those who are proficient in English and those who are still English-language learners—also made the same gains in math between 1st and 5th grades.

The study, “Mathematics Achievement of Language-Minority Students During the Elementary Years,” is important because it uses longitudinal data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Kindergarten Class of 1998-99 to reach its conclusions. The data is from a nationally representative sample of children who were part of that kindergarten class.

While the two subgroups of language-minority students and the students who spoke primarily English at home had the same math gains, the study did find a difference between the gains of Asian language-minority students and Hispanic language-minority students. The Asian language-minority students made greater gains in math between 1st and 5th grades.

Whenever I read a study such as this that concludes that one ethnic or racial group makes greater achievement gains than another, I ask the question, “Why?” This study doesn’t answer that question for me, but I did read some research this year that explored why some immigrant groups are higher achievers than others. Inheriting the City: the Children of Immigrants Come of Age, a book based on research about immigrant youths in New York City, provided some explanations. The researchers found, for example, that Chinese families were better at navigating the school system to find better schools for their children than was the case with Dominican and Puerto Rican families. The Chinese families often moved to middle-class neighborhoods in New York City so their children could attend better public schools while Dominican families tended to put their resources into buying homes back in their home country and continued to live in low-income neighborhoods in New York City, where the schools didn’t provide an adequate education.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.