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ELLs’ Math, Reading Proficiency Rises, Study Finds

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 07, 2010 4 min read
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The percentage of English-language learners nationwide attaining proficiency in reading and mathematics on state tests increased in many states from the 2005-06 through the 2007-08 school years, says a report released today by the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. That increase was present at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, though it was less prevalent in high school than at the other levels, according to the center’s analysis.

But while the study found positive trends in test scores for ELLs, it notes that the gap in reading and math achievement between ELLs and non-ELLs remains huge in many states. The analysis didn’t look at whether that gap narrowed or widened in states in those school years.

The report includes a number of caveats to its findings, noting the frequent unreliability of data on English-learners.

“Our main finding is that, despite irregularities in terms of classifying kids and how the kids are tested, the overall trend is increased test scores for ELL students,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the center. He added that other reports by the center, an independent, nonprofit research organization, have shown that test scores have also increased for other kinds of students.

Because of deficiencies in data on ELLs, Mr. Jennings said he’s inclined to think the nation should have a single definition for such students. Currently, each state creates its own definition for an English-language learner under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

“It’s comparable to what happened with graduation rates,” said Mr. Jennings. “No one could believe the data because there was no comparability between definitions.”

Some Improvements

The report shows positive trends when test-score data for ELLs are examined from a variety of angles.

In grades 4 and 8 in both reading and math, more than two-thirds of the 35 states with sufficient data to be part of the analysis made gains in the percentage of ELLs scoring “proficient” over the school years studied. At the high school level, just over half those states showed increases.

The four states that have a majority of the ELLs nationwide—California, Texas, Florida, and New York—made gains in the percentage of students scoring proficient across the board, at all three grade spans, and in both reading and math.

The study also found that English-learners in grade 4 are doing better in math than in reading, and that the differences between ELLs and students overall in test performance tend to be smaller for math than for reading.

Deborah Short, a senior research associate at the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics, cautioned against reading too much into what scores on state tests say about the achievement of ELLs nationally. She added that the analysis is most helpful in telling what is happening within individual states.

“We can’t say much on a national level because we don’t have comparable tests, and states have different cutoff scores,” she said.

Ms. Short also stressed that an English-learner, by definition, is not proficient in English, adding that “unfortunately we continue to have federal and state policies that test students who are not proficient in English, and [we] express concern when students score at a below-proficient level.”

She said she’d like to see the federal government require states to disaggregate data to show what progress former ELLs are making. Whether former ELLs are proficient in reading and math is the true test of whether ELL programs have worked, she said.

Kathleen Leos, who was the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of English-language acquisition from 2004 to 2007 during President George W. Bush’s administration, said the report “indicates by the trend line that the No Child Left Behind Act is doing its job.”

She said the data for ELLs are in much better shape than before the act became law in 2002. “Before NCLB, we didn’t even realize on a national level how many ELLs were in the system, or what kind of service they received, or what was their achievement,” she said.

But Ms. Leos, who is now the president and chief executive officer of the Global Institute for Language and Literacy Development, a Washington-based company that consults with schools on ELLs, said that federal provisions for ELLs must be strengthened.

For example, she said, states’ processes for identifying such students are deficient. She favors requiring a statewide test that is aligned with a state’s English-language-proficiency standards that can also be used for placement of students in ELL programs.

Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University and an expert on ELLs, cautioned that the study isn’t conclusive on whether ELL achievement is improving.

“One would need to benchmark the state assessments against trusted common benchmarks such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress to verify if the gains are indeed real,” he said in an e-mail.

But he also expressed sentiments similar to those of Ms. Leos about how No Child Left Behind—the current version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act—had brought forth much more data about ELLs that hadn’t existed before.

“The very fact that this [CEP] study could be conducted in the first place is a direct benefit of policies put into place with NCLB that required disaggregation of data for the subgroup of English-language learners,” he wrote. “So the good news is that this subgroup of students is being paid attention to. The bad news is that they are being paid attention to in very imperfect ways.”

He also said that if educators want to know how ELLs are doing over the long haul, students who are successful and are reclassified as proficient in English should remain in the category for accountability purposes.

A version of this article appeared in the April 21, 2010 edition of Education Week as ELLs’ Math, Reading Proficiency Rises, Study Finds

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