School & District Management Opinion

Don’t Be Too Quick to Retain English-Language Learners

Authors of a splashy ELL retention study urge “great caution”
By Rebecca Callahan, David Figlio, Madeline Mavrogordato & Umut Ozek — February 28, 2019 4 min read
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Good news is often hard to come by in education research. So it’s not surprising that recent media coverage trumpeting positive impacts of retention for English-language learners caught the eye of many policymakers and educators. Stories in Education Week and The Hechinger Report highlighted that if retained in 3rd grade, English-learners learned English in half the time and took more advanced classes in middle and high school. The recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper has made quite a splash. However, does this study really suggest retaining English-learners is a good idea?

The results are compelling. English proficiency is necessary to fully participate in everything American schools have to offer, and advanced course-taking, often beyond English-learners’ reach, can unlock future job prospects. But we—the two authors of this study (David Figlio and Umut Özek) as well as two experts in English-language-learning policy (Rebecca Callahan and Madeline Mavrogordato)—strongly urge policymakers and practitioners not to race ahead and retain English-learners on the basis of this study.

The research uses a state-of-the-art method called regression discontinuity, which allows us to disentangle causation from correlation by comparing English-learners who are identical in many ways, except that some scored just below the cutoff for retention while some scored just above. This is the most credible way to estimate the effects of Florida’s policy absent a randomized trial. However, the price we pay for credibility is that the findings do not apply to all English-learners. With this method, researchers can only estimate the effects for students just on the cusp of retention, and even then findings apply only to English-learners who have been in American schools two years or more. So the study tells us little about how the policy would affect English-learners with higher or lower reading scores, or those who arrived more recently.

We—the two authors of this study as well as two experts in English-language learning—strongly urge policymakers and practitioners not to race ahead and retain English-learners on the basis of this study."

Policymakers and practitioners shouldn’t pick and choose their facts, and a raft of evidence exists documenting negative consequences of retention. Many previous studies have shown a negative relationship between retention and student outcomes, including short-term disciplinary issues, psychosocial trauma, and higher risk for high school dropout. Some of the studies of long-term achievement are negative as well. In fact, retention may even exacerbate inequity, as African-American, Latino, and English-learner students are retained more frequently than their white or native English-speaking peers. Even in the case of “objective” retention policies like Florida’s, children from poor families are more likely to be retained than their more advantaged peers, even when they have similar scores.

Moreover, while grade retention gets most of the airtime—something inadvertently perpetuated in the recent study—in the case of Florida, it is only part of the story. When a 3rd grader scores below a certain score on Florida’s reading test, state policy requires that the student not only repeat 3rd grade, but also receive four important interventions: (1) summer school, (2) 90 minutes of daily reading instruction, (3) placement with an effective teacher, and (4) an academic improvement plan. In fact, this combination might explain why other prior studies suggest positive effects of Florida’s policy.

Independently, each of these interventions could have produced some of the educational benefits found in the recent study. Extra instructional time, both in summer school and during the school day, can improve students’ math and reading achievement. For English-learners in particular, summer school may boost both academic achievement and college aspirations.

Likewise, literacy instruction, particularly when it emphasizes comprehension and is integrated across content areas such as math and science, holds promise for improving English-learners’ academic outcomes. The most effective reading interventions for English-learners appear to be those that incorporate high-quality instruction. And since Florida’s policy ensures that retained students are placed with an effective teacher, improved teacher quality could also contribute to better outcomes. Teacher effectiveness is particularly salient for English-learners as they are more likely to be placed with undercertified and novice teachers than other student groups.

This marginalization of English-learners dates back to the start of compulsory schooling, when it was common for educators to apply labels such as “unteachable,” “imbeciles,” and “dunces” to students learning English, and retain them in a misguided attempt to solve the problem. In fact, until the Supreme Court intervened in 1974 with Lau v. Nichols, which essentially extended Brown v. Board to protect the rights of students learning English, inappropriate retention was the rule, rather than the exception for English-learners. Even today, in a context where educators constantly strive to improve ELL education, the challenge to doing so without further segregating and isolating English-learners students remains. While grade retention coupled with other interventions might improve some outcomes for some English-learners, we urge policymakers and practitioners to exercise great caution before introducing “brute force” instruments for educating a population with such a history of educational marginalization and mistreatment.

Currently, 16 states have 3rd grade test-based retention requirements, two more are pending, and an additional eight allow educators to recommend test score-based retention. Many policymakers see retention as a “silver bullet,” and this new study might convince more people to support early-grade retention for English-learners. To be certain, ELL students require time to learn English. However, we suggest that retention be used sparingly and with a clear-headed understanding of its risks, not just its potential benefits.

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