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Third Grade Retention of ELLs: New Research Sparks Furor

By Corey Mitchell — March 05, 2019 6 min read
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New research that suggests struggling English-learners could benefit from repeating 3rd grade has drawn a strong rebuke from leading scholars—and rekindled the national debate over so-called “literacy laws” that require retaining students if they fail to achieve a target score on reading tests.

While studies have questioned the effectiveness of holding back students to reach that goal, a pair of researchers have concluded that English-learners in Florida benefited from the extra year of and exposure to the language.

Led by David Figlio, an education economist and the dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, and Umut Ozek, a senior researcher at the American Institutes for Research, a study of 40,000 English-learners in Florida found that students who repeated 3rd grade learned English faster and took more advanced classes in middle and high school than their peers, who also struggled to learn the language, but moved on to 4th grade. Figlio and Ozek published the research in January in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Their study, however, has attracted a group of high-profile critics, who are concerned that their work could have ramifications well beyond academia.

In a scathing critique, members of the Working Group on ELL Policy, a collection of nationally known scholars on English-language-learning, challenges the “assumptions, approach, and findings” of the research, making the case that it could harm students who are already often marginalized and misunderstood.

The group also questions what actually benefited the students—the retention, the targeted reading instruction and related academic support students received, the teachers leading the instruction, or some combination of those factors.

Two former bilingual education teachers, Megan Hopkins, an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, and Francesca López, of the University of Arizona, were the letter’s main authors.

“Whether grade retention is a good idea for all struggling [English-learners] is not a finding this study can support,” they wrote in the letter posted online.

Dating to 2002, the year that Florida’s law that requires 3rd graders to pass a reading test took effect, Figlio and Ozek reviewed records of English-learners in a dozen districts. Those who didn’t pass the test repeated 3rd grade with extra support, including extended blocks of daily reading instruction and summer school classes.

The researchers compared the academic trajectories of English-learners who fell just below the score threshold to pass, and were retained, with those of English-learners who scored just high enough to pass and move on to 4th grade.

When Figlio and Ozek compared test scores of the students when they reached the same grade level, they found ELLs who were held back in 3rd grade consistently outperformed their peers on state tests and were less likely to take remedial English courses in middle school.

The students who repeated 3rd grade were also more likely to enroll in middle school honors courses and high school classes that could earn them college credit, they found.

‘A Year Left Behind’

In the state’s Miami-Dade school system—home to more than 70,000 ELLs—teachers and administrators home in on students who need additional help well before they reach 3rd grade, said Ana Gutierrez, the director of the district’s bilingual education programs.

“It can be misleading to assume that an English-language learner just needs a year left behind, that that’s going to sort of miraculously be the end-all to everything, because that’s not the case,” Gutierrez said.

“You’re looking at it from the perspective of ‘Wow. Well you don’t know enough English. We’re going to retain you and that’s going to help you in the following year.’ It becomes punitive then.”

Under Florida’s law that requires students to be retained, the district typically identifies less than 10 percent of the district’s roughly 8,000 3rd grade English-learners for possible retention, Gutierrez estimated.

Even students who don’t earn a qualifying score on the Florida Standards Assessment can be promoted to 4th grade if they pass a test at the end of a mandatory summer reading camp.

Education Week reached out to seven Florida districts—all with more than 10,000 ELLs—about how they handle retention. In Polk County, a 100,000-student district, ELLs were statistically overrepresented among the 3rd graders retained last year. The students made up 16 percent of the overall population, but 32 percent of those held back, said Michael Ackes, the district’s chief academic officer.

Ackes, who calls himself a staunch opponent of the state law, said, “We have students, like ESOL students, who are put at a disadvantage, and we need to be real cognizant of how we provide support on the front end, not retention on the back end.”

Officials at the Florida education department did not respond to an interview request.

Beyond the retention debate, there’s the issue of whether students, ELL or not, are still developing reading skills as 8- and 9-year-olds.

In Michigan, New Mexico, and North Carolina, students who fell short of the requirements to advance to 4th grade are not always held back. Even in Florida, lawmakers have weighed scrapping it.

While retaining students could be expensive for districts and stigmatizing for students, researchers Figlio and Ozek argue those potential risks are worth it if schools boost the graduation prospects of more ELLs and spend less on remedial education classes down the line.

Helping more ELLs earn diplomas could help narrow a yawning gap between them and their non-ELL peers. Nationally, the graduation rate for ELLs is 67 percent; that’s 18 percentage points less than the overall graduation rate.

In an interview, Ozek said he and Figlio plan to revise their working paper, based on feedback from colleagues and other researchers, before submitting the final version, but don’t expect the results to change much.

“We understand the sensitivity around the issue because English-learners are a vulnerable population,” Ozek said. “This is a highly contentious topic and [retention is not] the most popular intervention.”

In their letter challenging the research, The Working ELL Group urged policymakers in other states to tread carefully before trying to pitch a similar approach.

“Without situating Figlio and Ozek’s study in the broader scholarship on EL education, and fully considering its limitations and implications, policymakers risk applying this study’s findings in ways that could exacerbate inequalities for [English-learners],” the letter reads.

The research group also questioned why the authors didn’t do more to explore the social-emotional impact of grade retention, which can be stigmatizing.

Like members of The Working Group on ELL Policy, Ozek also expressed concern about lawmakers or state education officials potentially developing new policy based on their research findings in Florida.

And Gutierrez, a former ESOL teacher and principal, noted: “I know that within our state, they require... us to take a look at the number of students that are being retained, and to ask some deeper questions.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Third Grade Retention of ELLs: New Research Sparks Furor

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