English-Language Learners

ELLs Who Master English Early More Likely to Graduate On Time, Study Finds

By Corey Mitchell — December 01, 2016 2 min read
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The earlier that English-language-learner students are reclassified as English-proficient, the more likely they are to graduate high school, a study from the Regional Educational Laboratory at WestEd found.

The study, which examined high school graduation rates in Arizona for five English-learner-student subgroups, also found that students who entered high school as English-learners were less likely to graduate in four years, the researchers found.

Overall, the researchers found that the graduation rate gap between students who were reclassified as English-proficient in elementary school and students who are still ELLs in high school was striking. The students in each subgroup entered high school during the 2010-11 school year and were expected to graduate in spring 2014.

Only 49 percent of long-term ELLs—students who have attended school in the United States for four years or more without being reclassified as proficient in English—finished in four years. A group identified as new English-learner students—those identified as ELLs after 6th grade who entered high school with the designation—fared only slightly better, with 52 percent graduating on time.

On the other end of the curve, students reclassified as English proficient in elementary school had a much better shot at graduating high school in four years. Roughly 81 percent of former ELLs reclassified as English proficient between grades 2 and 5 graduated on time.

That’s only four percentage points less than the graduation rates for Arizona’s never English-learners, students who are native English speakers or were deemed to be English proficient before they reached 2nd grade.

The study points out that students who are reclassified earlier are likely to have “more time in mainstream classes to learn academic concepts in English prior to graduation.”

However, the researchers warned against assuming that the date of reclassification alone accounts for the differences in graduation rates, noting that students who are reclassified in earlier grades are less likely to need special education services, live in poverty, and have interrupted formal education.

“The absence of risk factors may make these students more likely to succeed in school and more likely to graduate within four years,” the researchers concluded.

The researchers argue that their findings make the case that high school English-learners need more support in order to graduate in four years. That syncs with the conclusion of a WestEd study released earlier this fall that found even middle and high school ELLs who are deemed English-proficient still often struggle to grasp math and English/language arts lessons.

Arizona is something of an outlier on ELL education and policy, something that previous WestEd studies have noted. The state has a long and contentious history of educating students who are learning English. The amount of funding and the state’s approach to ELL education been the subject of court challenges and federal investigations for decades.

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Image Source: Regional Educational Laboratory at WestEd

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