Equity & Diversity

English-Language Learners: How Schools Can Drive or Derail Their Success

By Corey Mitchell — March 17, 2017 3 min read
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New research indicates that where English-language learners attend school can determine how quickly they are reclassified as English-proficient.

A Michigan State University research team found that schools in Texas—second only to California in total number of K-12 English-learners—vary widely in how they determine if students should be reclassified as English proficient, affecting their chances of success in school and beyond.

Using state data, the researchers estimated reclassification rates for English-learners throughout Texas over seven years. They found that an English-learner in the El Paso metropolitan area, for example is almost twice as likely to be reclassified by the end of 7th grade, compared to a student performing at the same level in the Rio Grande Valley.

“It seems curious to me that we would have students in different parts of the state being reclassified at different rates if they have similar scores on English proficiency and academic achievement assessments,” lead researcher Madeline Mavrogordato told Education Week.

Mavrogordato—an assistant professor of K-12 administration at Michigan State—argues that an ELL student’s reclassification often determines their educational trajectory. When it occurs too early, English-learners could find themselves struggling without the support services they need. If too late, students may be restricted from taking higher-level courses that would prepare them for college.

The research is timely because the the Every Student Succeeds Act now requires all states to standardize how they identify and reclassify English-learners. That could prove to be a daunting task for many states that don’t have the capacity or manpower that Texas does. Even in a place such as Texas, which has had policies in place since the 1990s that seek to standardize ELL reclassification, inconsistencies persist.

As part of their research, Mavrogordato and Rachel White, a doctoral candidate at Michigan State, also observed eight Texas elementary schools while educators conducted annual meetings required to determine the status of English-learners. They observed differences in what happens during the meetings, including how technology, data, and teacher assessments guide decision-making.

The researchers concluded that the likelihood of reclassification appears to be linked to how well educators understand state policies and what role they play in implementation.

“In schools where the teacher’s recommendations trumped all other data, we saw lower rates of reclassification,” Mavrogordato said. “The people who are involved in this process ... need to be well-versed in the consequences of these decisions.”

Mavrogordato spent time as a bilingual teacher of 3rd- and 4th-graders in the Rio Grande Valley as a Teach For America corps member in the mid-2000s and also taught in northern California, where she worked with ELLs.

With the passage of Proposition 58 in California last fall, public schools across the state now have more running room to operate bilingual and dual-language programs. But during Mavrogordato’s time as a teacher there, Proposition 227—a measure that led many districts to drop their bilingual programs entirely —was still on the books.

Her varied experience in California and Texas sparked her research interest.

“One of the things that became really apparent was just how differently English-learners were being served in these two different contexts,” Mavrogordato said. “That just started making me ask a lot of different questions about the policies and the way that we serve these kids.”

Here’s a link to the study: //journals.sagepub.com/stoken/default+domain/yIBQ3w8efPhNwg8EPy7e/full

The final, definitive version is available through the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis at //eepa.aera.net

For Further Reading

Photo Credit: Andrew Echeverria, left, gets help from Joel Miller, a veteran educator who teaches a course for long-term English-learners at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. The course was created to help students who have struggled to become proficient in English. --Emile Wamsteker for Education Week

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