English-Language Learners

Study: Language Barriers Can Steer Immigrant Students to STEM Courses

By Corey Mitchell — January 10, 2019 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Immigrant children in the United States, particularly those students whose native languages are dissimilar to English, tend to study more math and science in high school and college than their peers, according to a new study from researchers at Duke and Stanford universities.

Drawing on federal data, the researchers determined that about 20 percent of U.S.-born college students major in science, technology, engineering, and math-related subjects. Those numbers are higher for immigrant students. Among immigrant children who arrived in the United States after age 10 and came from Mexico or Central American or Asian countries, more than a third were STEM majors.

As a result, the immigrant students are better positioned to land STEM-related work. The groundwork for entering those STEM careers begins well before the students reach college campuses. In high school, those immigrant children earn about 20 percent more credits in math-intensive courses than they do in English-based courses. That’s because the older students were more likely to home in on mathematical and technical subjects and shy away from social sciences and humanities courses.

“We tend to look at immigrant kids [who don’t speak English] coming into schools as a drag on the system ... but they bring some specific abilities,” said Marcos Rangel, an assistant professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy. “The absolute difficulty with English may turn into a relative advantage in math and science subjects.”

Led by Rangel and Ying Shi, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis, the study appears online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. To measure how much the students’ native languages differed from English, the researchers used a metric called the “Levenshtein distance” to quantify the linguistic differences. Under the system, Spanish, Arabic, and languages of East Asia are distinctively different than English.

On the surface, the findings seems to clash with the conclusions from a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, released in the fall, that concluded that schools systems should do more to ensure that current and former English-learners have access to STEM education—but the English-learner and immigration student populations aren’t necessarily the same in the United States.

That’s why Rangel and Shi’s findings should raise questions about the way English-learners—most of whom were born in this country—are educated. If foreign-born students who aren’t fluent in English can access and excel in STEM courses here, why aren’t U.S.-born English-learners afforded those same opportunities?

“Too often schools operate under the incorrect assumption that proficiency in English is a prerequisite to meaningful engagement with STEM learning and fail to leverage ELs’ meaningful engagement with content and disciplinary practices as a route to language proficiency,” the authors of the National Academies report wrote.

The committee behind the report, a who’s who of scholars on educational equity, English acquisition, and STEM-related subjects, produced a list of recommendations, including tips on how districts can remove barriers that limit English-learners’ participation in STEM education and monitor the progress of students once they enroll in courses.

A 2016 study from Regional Education Laboratory Northwest found that when current and former ELLs are equally prepared to take advanced courses, as measured by their grade point averages and standardized test scores in math and reading, they enroll in more college-level courses and earn better grades than peers with similar prior academic performance.

Related Reading

English-Learners Often Denied Full Access to STEM Education, Report Finds

With More Exposure to Science, English-Learners’ Achievement Soared

Study: Current, Former ELLs Take Fewer Advanced, College-Prep Classes

Photo Credit: Students in the District of Columbia’s International Academy at Cardozo Education Campus, immigrants from Central America and Asia, work on an assignment in history class.

--Greg Kahn for Education Week

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