Equity & Diversity

Strong English Seen as Key to Immigrants’ School Success

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 16, 2007 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier Web version of this story incorrectly stated the number of individual portraits of students, identified as “declining achievers,” “low achievers,” “improvers,” or “high achievers.”

English proficiency is the biggest predictor of the academic achievement of immigrant students, and the quality of the overall language arts program at a school—not just programs for English-language learners within the school—is strongly linked to whether they acquire English, an in-depth study has found.

Researchers Carola and Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco and Irina Todorova conclude that English proficiency has more of an impact on immigrant students’ academic success, as measured by grade point averages and standardized-test scores, than all other variables they studied put together. Those other variables were students’ behavioral engagement, maternal education, having a working father, and being in a two-parent family.

The study found that how well students learn English is also very strongly correlated with the quality of schools they attend. A school’s percentage of students who scored as proficient or above on the state’s English-language-arts test and the school’s average-daily-attendance rate were highly predictive of whether immigrant students learned English.

“We surmise that in those schools where more of the students performed well on the English-language-arts exam, the quality of instruction as well as the language models were substantially better than in school settings where few students performed well,” the researchers write in Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society, a forthcoming book in which they report their conclusions. Harvard University Press expects to release the volume in February.

The Suárez-Orozco husband-and-wife team began their study—called the Longitudinal Immigrant Student Adaptation Study, or LISA—with the Harvard Immigration Projects, at Harvard University. In 2004, the couple left Harvard, where Ms. Todorova was a postdoctoral scholar, for New York University, and the Harvard Immigration Projects became Immigration Studies at New York University. Ms. Suárez-Orozco is now a professor of applied psychology at NYU, and Mr. Suárez-Orozco is an interdisciplinary professor there.

The pair started with a sample of 407 immigrant students from Central America, China, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Mexico, whom they caught up with in middle school in the Boston and San Francisco areas and followed for five years, until 2002. The sample had an average attrition rate of 5 percent each year; 309 students were left at the end of the study.

The book includes 16 individual portraits of students, identified as “declining achievers,” “low achievers,” “improvers,” or “high achievers.” The researchers found that two-thirds of the several hundred students in their study showed declines in their grade point averages over five years.

An additional 23 percent of students were high achievers who kept an average GPA of 3.5 for the five years of the study, and 11 percent of students started out with a low GPA—an average of 2.29—and managed to pull it up to a respectable B average in five years.

Effect of English Debated

Some experts on immigrant students question the study’s finding that English proficiency is the greatest predictor of academic success for such students.

“What is advanced English proficiency picking up on?” said Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University and specialist on ELLs. “I don’t know whether it’s a cause or effect. It’s a litmus test. It shows you how ready to learn a student is in a new environment. That may be all it is.”

Mr. Hakuta is a board member of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, which helped pay for the $3.3 million LISA study and also supports Education Week’s coverage of education research. The National Science Foundation and the W.T. Grant Foundation also funded the study.

The Fluency Factor

A forthcoming book based on a study involving hundreds of immigrant teenagers concludes that their command of English was the single strongest factor in predicting academic success. Students’ level of English was influenced by various factors.

English-language proficiency

• School’s percentage of students at (or above) proficiency on the state English/language arts exam
• Parents’ English proficiency
• Parental literacy
• English use in informal settings
• Time in the United States
• School’s average attendance rate
• Prior schooling

SOURCE: Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society

Rubén G. Rumbaut, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who along with Alejandro Portes, now a sociologist at Princeton University, studied 5,000 students who were first- or second-generation immigrants for 10 years, also questioned the finding that English proficiency is the biggest predictor of academic success.

The Rumbaut and Portes study found that fluent bilingualism, and lower parent-child conflict, were associated with greater academic success among immigrants and children of immigrants. (Foreign-born students made up half of students in the sample.)

The number of hours spent daily on homework was a stronger predictor of cumulative grade point average than any language measure, whether English proficiency or fluent bilingualism, Mr. Rumbaut explained.

The Rumbaut and Portes study, published in 2001, found that as students acquired English, their self-esteem rose, but the amount of time they spent on homework or how much they were engaged in school tended to deteriorate.

“English is absolutely essential. You can’t succeed in college without English,” Mr. Rumbaut said. “It’s also a measure of acculturation. … English per se is not the most important factor.”

‘Very Human Portrayal’

Mr. Suárez-Orozco said the the two studies focused on different kinds of students. The first study includes second-generation immigrant students, who struggle not to lose their native language, while the LISA study includes only newly arrived immigrant students, who view learning English as a major struggle, he said.

He added that the researchers on his team tested students in their native languages as well as in English, and found that bilingualism is important for academic success. Their findings confirmed what is widely established in research literature, “that strong literacy in your home language is a very good predictor of how well you will attain fluency in the second language,” he said.

Patricia Gándara, an education professor and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, said one important finding of the LISA study is that a very high percentage of immigrant students don’t become proficient in English after five years. “That’s something researchers have been talking about for a long time, but the public doesn’t seem to get it,” she said.

Blog: Learning the Language

More stories on this topic are tackled by veteran Education Week reporter Mary Ann Zehr in her blog, Learning the Language.

Several experts said the most significant contribution of the LISA study is its qualitative aspects. They say Learning a New Land’s descriptions of the poor-quality schools that many immigrant students attend and profiles of individual students, which delve into the psychological impact of immigration on their lives, will be valuable for educators.

“It gives a very human portrayal of immigrant students and their parents,” and it’s unusual to have such a portrayal based on such a large sample of immigrant students, Mr. Hakuta said. He commended the researchers for their descriptions of schools and friendship patterns in schools.

“The authors give a face to new immigrants and the kinds of struggles they have in education,” said Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, a professor of child development at Teachers College and the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. “It shows how hard it is, even with the best intentions—and you can almost rename the book, Best Intentions.”

Individuals Profiled

Some of the profiles of individual students in the book, grouped according to how well they achieved over time and identified by pseudonyms, are sobering.

Lotus, a student from China, for example, falls under the researchers’ category of “declining achiever.” The girl’s father has high expectations for her brother in school, but not for her. Lotus nevertheless is initially motivated to learn and does well in a bilingual program at a middle school.

She is accepted into a competitive exam school, but then her grades drop as she becomes more socially isolated. “Difficult family relationships and a lack of emotional support at school (in part due to her self-imposed isolation) cause her to become overwhelmed by anxiety and depression,” the researchers write.

Li, another student from China, gets strong support from his highly educated parents and by the time he is 17, at the end of the study, he has been accepted by both an Ivy League university and top technology institute. But in embracing American life, he increasingly withdraws from a close relationship with his parents.

“For Li, his enviable academic success comes at a cost: Li’s father no longer recognizes this successful young man,” the researchers write. “Li has become a stranger—an immigrant—in his own family.”

The researchers conclude that the academic achievement of immigrant youths doesn’t depend only on their willingness to work hard, make friends, please teachers, avoid dangerous situations, find mentors, and learn English quickly and well. The students also need additional resources and support.

“The disheartening decline in test scores and GPA for most immigrant students after their first three years in the United States shows we are not doing enough as a society to nurture and sustain the initial positive motivation of these students,” the researchers for Learning a New Land conclude.

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Command of English Predicts Immigrant Students’ Success, Study Concludes

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