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Study: ELLs Fare Worse in Boston after Question 2

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 07, 2009 2 min read

English-language learners did increasingly worse academically in Boston Public Schools in the three years following passage of Question 2, according to an exhaustive study released this week on the impact of the ballot measure approved in 2002 that greatly curtailed transitional bilingual education in the state. An April 7 article in the Boston Globe summarizes the study.

The dropout rate for ELLs in Boston high schools increased significantly from 2003 to 2006, the years examined by the study, and in some areas of achievement, ELLs lost ground in comparison with other students. The research was conducted by the Maurico Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and the Center for Collaborative Education. (Find links to the two studies resulting from the research here.)

In 2003, high school ELLs both in general education classes and in special programs to learn English were less likely to drop out of school than students on average in Boston Public Schools. But by 2006, the trend was reversed and both groups of ELLs were more likely to drop out that on average. While 10.9 percent of students on average dropped out, 11.9 percent of ELLs in general education classes dropped out and 12.1 percent of ELLs in special programs dropped out.

Test scores show that ELLs in 4th grade improved their pass rates in math and English/language arts from 2003 to 2006. But in the 10th grade, pass rates for ELLs on state math and English/language arts tests fell significantly at the same time that pass rates for all students climbed. In 2003, ELLs in special programs were more likely to pass the 10th grade math test than students on average. In 2006, they were considerably less likely to pass the test. That year, only 45.4 percent of ELLs in special programs passed the 10th grade math test compared with 67.9 percent of students who did for the whole school district.

The achievement gap between ELLs and native speakers of English widened at all grade levels, the report found.

The report notes that statewide, the dropout rate for ELLs increased from 6.1 percent in 2003 to 9.5 percent in 2006. It also notes that gaps between ELLs and other students in Massachusetts haven’t narrowed during that same period of time.

The report doesn’t take a stance that Boston schools, or Massachusetts, for that matter, should return to transitional bilingual education. But it says that students’ experience with structured English immersion, the default method for teaching ELLs after passage of Question 2, must be improved. “Regardless of the opinion one holds about the relative value of different models of instruction, what is clear—and highlighted in this report—is the difficulty of implementing such a rapid and highly disruptive policy change in an urban district already burdened with very complex problems,” the researchers for the study conclude.

The Boston school system is only the latest urban school district to have been singled out as needing to improve services for ELLs. School districts in Seattle and Portland also need to overhaul their programs for ELLs, according to educators or researchers who have reviewed them.

At the same time, at least one urban school system, Salt Lake City public schools, recently got a stamp of approval from the office for civil rights of the U.S. Department of Education for providing adequate services for ELLs.

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

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