Equity & Diversity

English-Language-Learner Classification Can Impede Student Growth, Study Finds

By Corey Mitchell — September 20, 2016 3 min read
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English-language-learner services are designed, in theory, to prevent educational inequity, but for some students the specialized services may be reinforcing it.

A new study out of the University of Oregon found that designating early elementary students who are close to being proficient in English as ELLs may actually do more harm than good.

Ilana Umansky, an assistant professor in the university’s college of education, argues that kindergarten students who score at or just above threshold for English-learner services are often indistinguishable from those who score just below. However, the students on the cusp who are identified as English-learners end up scoring significantly lower on math and English/language arts tests in 2nd through 10th grade, Umansky’s research determines.

Umansky blames their classification as English-learners, and the diminished teacher expectations and social stigma tied to that status, for the lower test scores. Also particularly harmful is the fact that designation as an English-learner can set up a tiered education system, one that can restrict students’ access to a school or district’s full menu of academic resources and coursework, she writes.

Studies have long shown that long-term English-language learners, those who aren’t reclassified as English proficient as they head into middle and high school, often struggle in school and are less likely to graduate. Umansky makes the case that English-learner classification can negatively impact students, especially those who may not need the services, as early as 2nd grade.

Umansky’s research focuses on a large urban district in California. She cautions that the negative effect of ELL classification found in her study “should not be considered constant across districts, schools, or programs,” and that the language of instruction for the students is a key factor: bilingual programs, including dual-language immersion education, can buffer students from negative effects of being tagged as an English-learner, she writes.

“Rather than being defined by their lack of proficiency in one language, EL students in two-language classrooms may be defined by their knowledge of two languages,” Umanksy writes. “In addition, teachers who speak the home language of their students may understand their students’ lives, backgrounds, and families better, and, as a result, have more accurate expectations of EL students and form closer relationships with them that help them succeed.”

Here’s a link to the abstract of the study, “To Be or Not to Be EL: An Examination of the Impact of Classifying Students as English Learners.”

Umansky was among the lead researchers for a 2014 study that determined that English-language learners in San Francisco’s public schools were equally proficient in English by the time they reached 5th grade regardless of whether they had been in a bilingual program or had received all their instruction in English. Here’s a link to Education Week’s reporting on that research.

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Photo Credit: Maritza Fabia, a 3rd grader at Rose Hill Elementary School in Colorado’s Adams 14 school district, listens to her teacher during a Spanish class. The district is under a federal compliance agreement to correct discrimination problems.

--Nathan W. Armes for Education Week

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