English-Language Learners

Report Questions Arizona’s Approach to English-Learner Instruction

By Corey Mitchell — September 23, 2015 2 min read
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A new report found that more than 90 percent of Arizona’s K-12 English-language learners were reclassified as English-proficient within six school years, but the study raises questions about whether the state’s approach for ELL instruction works for all students.

Using data from the 2006-07 through 2011-12 school years, researchers from the Regional Education Laboratory at WestEd examined the percentage of English-learner students who passed Arizona’s tests in English-language proficiency along with English/language arts and math.

The Arizona results are of note because the state remains part of the national debate over how to best teach students who enter school speaking another language. The state’s approach to teaching includes a daily four-hour block of English-only instruction for its estimated 86,000 ELLs.

Arizona’s method has faced scrutiny in an era where English-only programs have fallen out of favor nationally.

The Regional Education Laboratory’s data review found that:

  • Sixth-grade English-learners had lower passing rates on the English/language arts and math content tests than students in kindergarten and third grade.
  • English-learners eligible for school lunch programs and male students scored lower on the tests than their counterparts who were not eligible for school lunch programs and female students.
  • English-learners eligible for special education services at the start of the study had lower reclassification rates than students who were not eligible.

“Arizona may consider devoting additional attention to improving teaching practices and support services to help these underperforming English learner student subgroups,” the report authors write.

The authors later added that: “It may be too rigid or simplistic to assume that all English learner students will advance at the same pace. More flexible standards may be more useful to educators.”

A 2010 qualitative study of five Arizona school districts released by a California research and advocacy group concluded that Arizona’s instruction method will “almost certainly” widen the achievement gap between ELLs and their mainstream peers.

Study Methodology

The Regional Education Laboratory study separated students into three grade-level cohorts comprised of kindergarten, 3rd grade and 6th grade students. Across all three tests, the passing rates for the cohorts was highest for the English-language proficiency test followed by the English/language arts exam, and then the math content test.

The study included all students identified as English-learner students who were enrolled in the state’s public schools in the designated grade, who progressed to the next grade level each year, and who had the required test data throughout the six years.

The authors note that the study sample excludes students who left or entered the state during the study period, along with those who repeated or skipped a grade.

The Achievement Progress of English-learner Students in Arizona

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