Middle and high school-aged English-language learners who are deemed English-proficient still often struggle to grasp math and English/language arts lessons, a recently released study found.
The study from the Regional Education Laboratory at WestEd found that, in Arizona and Nevada, older ELLs struggled to pass state math and language arts exams, even if they had tested out of English-proficiency support programs.
The WestEd researchers examined two cohorts of English-learner students in Arizona and Nevada—one cohort of 3rd grade students and one of 6th grade students—over three years.
The researchers found that students in the 6th grade cohort reclassified as English proficient continued to struggle with the “higher demands” of state English/language arts and math exams, much more so than the 3rd grade students. The researchers argue that the older ELL students still need intense support, most likely something different than they’re already getting.
“This study provides evidence that many English-learner students may not yet be ready for full academic success within two years of reclassification and placement in mainstream English-only classes,” the study authors conclude.
The research also offers broad insights into how English-proficiency correlates with performance on state tests. In both grade levels, higher English-language proficiency levels were associated with higher passing rates on English/language arts and math content tests. The researchers also found that “older English-learner students generally make slower academic progress than do younger English-learner students.” Those findings are consistent with prior research.
The Every Student Succeeds Act may help to address some issues identified in the study. Under the new federal education law, districts and states must track the performance of former ELLs for four years to “determine whether they are performing academically on par with their never-EL peers or whether gaps in achievement remain.”
Arizona, Nevada Struggle With ELL Students
The study acknowledges that the results found in Arizona and Nevada may not apply to other states. The states are outliers, at least when it comes to their struggles with English-learner education; both have ELL graduation rates of less than 30 percent, less than half the national average of 62.6 percent.
Arizona especially 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.
Since 2006, state law has required mandatory, four-hour blocks of English-language instruction for ELLs. A previous WestEd study questioned the effectiveness of that approach. Last fall, the state eased the restrictions, allowing districts to cut back on the time some English-language learners spend in the English-only block.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.