English-Language Learners

Does English-Language-Learner Classification Help or Hinder Students?

By Corey Mitchell — November 09, 2017 3 min read
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Designating early elementary students who are close to being proficient in English as English-language learners can have “significant and positive effects on the academic achievement” of the students, new research concludes.

The study concludes that additional support that students receive as English-learners helps foster higher achievement in language arts and mathematics than students who were on the cusp but were identified as initial English-proficient students—and, as a result, did not receive the extra services.

Nami Shin—a research scientist at CRESST, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards & Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles—used results from state mathematics and English language arts exams and grades to examine differences in academic performance between the two groups from kindergarten through 10th grade.

Shin found that the English-learner students performed better on state tests during the early elementary grades, but their advantage shrank as all the students reached middle and high school.

The gap probably narrowed, Shin said, because more than 50 percent of the English-learners in the study were reclassified as English proficient by 5th grade, and were no longer eligible for ELL support services. So, as more students were deemed English-proficient, both groups of students were more likely to receive the same instruction and services.

The findings of Shin’s research conflict with 2016 research from Ilana Umansky, an assistant professor in the University of Oregon’s College of Education.

Both researchers studied student performance in urban districts in California. But that’s where the similarities end.

Umansky found that students on the cusp who were identified as English-learners ended up scoring significantly lower on math and English/language arts tests. Umansky blamed their classification as English-learners, and the diminished teacher expectations and social stigma tied to that status, for the lower test scores.

Shin saw things differently. She argues that the presence of that social stigma motivated ELLs, pushing them to catch up with the initial English-proficient students and native English-speaking peers in order to be reclassified—and drop the ELL label—as soon as possible.

Shin and Umansky both cautioned that the effect of ELL classification found in their studies should be carefully interpreted and generalized. While they both focused their work in California, they studied in different districts, Shin said.

“Even within the same district, the extent to which each program is implemented might differ at school, classroom, and individual student levels,” Shin wrote. “Therefore, the effect of the initial classification, is likely to vary across different settings.”

Here’s a link to an abstract of Shin’s study, “The Effects of the Initial English Language Learner Classification on Students’ Later Academic Outcomes,” and a link to a post about Umansky’s study.

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Photo Credit: Teaching assistant Richard Nolasco listens to Joshua Flores and Ke’mari Barnes during their prekindergarten class at Tulsa’s Dual Language Academy. The population of Oklahoma’s second-largest school district has shifted dramatically in recent years, with nearly 1 in every 3 students coming from homes where Spanish is the primary language.

--Shane Bevel for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.