In Schools With Few ELLs, ESL Placement Has Negative Effect

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 17, 2009 1 min read
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In schools with a small number of English-language learners, first-generation immigrant students do better academically if they aren’t placed in English-as-a-second-language classes, according to a study published in the March issue of Educational Policy. Their counterparts in mainstream classes without ESL do better academically than students who are put in ESL classes; this finding is true only in schools with a low number of ELLs.

The study’s authors say they do not interpret the finding to mean that English-language learners do not need special support services. Rather, they argue that those services available in schools with few immigrant students appear now to be insufficient for giving the English-language learners parity with mainstreamed English-language learners. They note that it appears the students in ESL classes aren’t getting access to the school’s core academic curriculum.

And the study, “ESL Placement and Schools: Effects on Immigrant Achievement,” has another interesting finding: ESL placement is beneficial at schools with a large number of English-language learners. ESL classes have a strong positive effect on academic achievement for second-generation immigrants compared with their counterparts who are mainstreamed in those schools. But the positive effect of ESL placement, in this case, isn’t significant for the first-generation immigrant students.

What’s particularly interesting about the study is that the researchers look at the academic achievement of the first and second generations of immigrant students separately. I learned recently when reporting on what researchers call the “immigrant paradox,” that there are more studies out there looking at different generations than I thought, but most studies of ELLs seem to lump the different generations together.

It’s also interesting that the researchers didn’t use students’ test scores as measures of academic achievement, which is very common. Instead, they looked at enrollment in math and science courses, enrollment in college-preparatory courses in general, junior-year grade point average, and the rate of course failure.

They studied a sample of 1,169 students attending six schools with a large number of ELLs and 514 who attended 20 schools with few ELLs. The researchers are from the University of Georgia, University of Texas at Austin, and Pennsylvania State University.

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