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Study Finds Grades Give ‘Early Warning’ on ELL Dropouts

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 05, 2012 5 min read
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How well English-language learners perform in their 9th grade courses in Chicago’s public high schools is a much stronger predictor of their graduation prospects than their language proficiency, regardless of students’ race or ethnicity, or the length of time they have been receiving language instruction, according to a new study.

Specifically, English-learners’ absence rates and course failures in their freshman year, along with grade-point average and the number of credits they’ve earned—the so-called “early warning” signs used to identify students most at risk of dropping out of school—are more predictive of their later high school graduation than their level of proficiency in English or whether they have experienced interruptions in their schooling. Overall, the study found the early-warning indicators to be as predictive of graduation for English-learners as they were for students who have never been ELLs.

The findings are part of a new report released last week by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research and the National High School Center at the Washington-based American Institutes of Research.

“This really opens the door to let schools know that they can use these same early-warning indicators to identify English-language learners who are not on track to graduate,” said Julia Gwynne, one of the report’s co-authors. “I think it’s often people’s intuition that indicators that are more specific to English-learners, such as proficiency, might be more useful.”

Researchers at the Chicago research consortium, along with Robert Balfanz of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, were among the first to identify early-warning indicators, which are being used by a growing number of states to flag students who are not “on track” to graduate from high school.

In the new study, grade-point average was found to be the overall, most accurate predictor of eventual graduation for English-language learners, correctly identifying the outcome for such students 82 percent of the time. That is significantly higher than the predictiveness of students’ language-proficiency levels at the start of high school, an indicator that predicted eventual graduation 60 percent of the time.

Study Design

The researchers analyzed data for all Hispanic, white, and Asian students who were first-time freshmen in the 2004-05 school year in Chicago’s public high schools, and followed them for five years, until 2009, when they should have graduated. They compared the performance of English-learners with those who were not ELLs, and also looked at how five different subgroups of Hispanic students compared with one another. More than 70 percent of the English-language-learner population in the 405,000-student Chicago public school system is Hispanic.

For the purpose of the study, “new ELLs” were students first identified for ELL services in 6th grade or later and entered 9th grade still designated as English-learners; “long-term ELLs” were first identified prior to 6th grade and had not yet gained proficiency at entry into 9th grade; “recently proficient” students were former English-learners who had reached proficiency between 6th and 8th grade; “long-term proficient” students were former English-learners who achieved proficiency before 6th grade; and “never ELLs” were students who were native English-speakers or who scored high enough on an exam when they entered the Chicago school system to be classified as English proficient.

Overall, the newest English-learners did as well or better than their peers in any other group in their 9th grade courses, including students who had been proficient since before 6th grade and those who were never ELLs. On average, new ELLs earned between a C and a C-plus grade-point average, failed just under two classes, and missed about six days of school each semester. Two-thirds of them were deemed on track for graduation by the end of 9th grade, meaning they had accumulated five full-year course credits and had no more than one semester F grade in English, mathematics, science, or social studies.

Except for their 9th grade English course—which, for most students, was an ESL course—new ELLs took the same required classes as their peers in other groups, including Algebra 1 and World Studies. New ELLs also reported spending more time studying during 9th grade than their peers and had better attendance rates, the researchers found.

Explaining the Differences

Even so, new ELLs had the second lowest four-year graduation rate, at 57 percent, of any of the ELL groups, except long-term ELLs, who had the weakest performance on the indicators and a 52 percent graduation rate. Long-term proficient students graduated at a rate of 68 percent. In comparison, the districtwide graduation rate was 61 percent.

To try and explain why the performance of new ELLs did not translate into a higher graduation rate, the researchers compared them with their peers who were long-term proficient students. Three factors, in part, help explain the gap in graduation rates between the two groups despite their similar academic performance. New ELLs reported having lower educational expectations for themselves such as whether they would attend college, tended to enter high school at an older age, and were more likely to be enrolled in academically weaker high schools than long-term proficient students.

But Ms. Gwynne said those differences accounted for about “half” the gap between the two groups.

“There are still other factors that we haven’t accounted for, which could be a really important area for additional research,” said Ms. Gwynne. New ELLs were also more likely to remain on track than their other ELL peers as they moved through 10th grade, Ms. Gwynne noted, suggesting that factors that occur later on in high school are impacting new ELLs’ ability to graduate in four years.

Though long-term proficient students had the strongest overall performance of all the Hispanic ELL groups in the study, they still lagged well behind their ELL peers who were Asian or white.

“Overall, their GPA was a C-plus and we know ... that students coming out of high school need an A or B average to do well in college,” Ms. Gwynne said.

Mindee O’Cummings, a research analyst at AIR’s National High School Center, said the report should be helpful to cash-strapped districts seeking to improve graduation rates.

“So many schools struggle with this population of students, and they need help in figuring out how to more effectively allocate their resources,” Ms. O’Cummings said. “These indicators can work just as well with this subgroup that disproportionately drops out of high school.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2012 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Grades Give ‘Early Warning’ on ELL Dropouts

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