Event Recap: Studies on the Academic Progress of English Learners—A Research Discussion

In May 2017, REL Southwest hosted a webinar to present the findings and possible implications of two reports about English learner (ELs) students: English Learner Student Characteristics and Time to Reclassification: An Example from Washington State and Advanced Course Enrollment and Performance in Washington State: Comparing Spanish-Speaking Students with Other Language Minority Students and English-Only Speakers. The event drew 227 registrants from 34 states.

EL students face unique challenges when simultaneously learning English and trying to master academic content. Published by REL Northwest, these two reports examine factors related to EL students, how they progress in an academic setting, and the opportunities available to them. The studies and their findings have implications for education administration and practice in the REL Southwest Region.

Time to reclassification: How long does it take EL students to develop English proficiency?

Reclassification occurs when an EL student is considered proficient in the English language by the school and state administration (criteria can vary from state to state). EL students are more likely to drop out of school and less likely to graduate from high school the later they are reclassified.

Jason Greenberg Motamedi, Ph.D., a senior researcher at Education Northwest, presented the results of the study on EL time to reclassification. This study examined the relationship between student characteristics and the amount of time it took EL students in seven Seattle-area districts to reach English proficiency. Overall, the median time to reclassification varied by gender, home language, and level of English proficiency at kindergarten entry. Recommendations for districts and schools included providing support for all EL students regardless of proficiency; delivering interventions for students who take longer to be reclassified; and differentiating support by proficiency level, home language, and grade level.

quotation markThese types of studies . . . can really help us look at what is really the issue with students. Is it a language issue or do we need to move past that and look at the overall student’s achievement?
— Floridalia Zúñiga‑Gray

Floridalia Zúñiga‑Gray a dual language specialist with the Hutto Independent School District (ISD) in Hutto, Texas, provided a practitioner’s perspective. Zúñiga-Gray described the district’s dual language program and noted similarities to the study’s findings. She then shared ideas on how the team at Hutto ISD might use the findings to inform current and future work with EL students in the district.

Opportunities to soar: How does access to advanced courses vary for students who speak different languages?

Havala Hanson, a senior research advisor at Education Northwest, presented the findings from the study on EL students' advanced course enrollment and performance in Washington State. This study found that Spanish-speaking students in Washington state, regardless of their EL status, take fewer advanced courses than English-only speakers and speakers of other languages in the state. Spanish-speaking students also earn lower grades in advanced courses than non–Spanish-speaking students, although these differences disappear when students have the same grade point average and test scores in the prior year and attend the same school. In addition, schools with the lowest percentage of Spanish-speaking EL students offer more advanced courses than schools with higher percentages of these students.

Recommendations include prioritizing academic rigor for Spanish speakers early on, offering language assistance in advanced courses, and increasing and diversifying advanced course offerings in schools that serve many Spanish speakers.

quotation markTypically we look at our data in terms of ELs and non‑ELs, so this really helped us think more carefully about not just grouping them into two groups but looking at that EL group as more heterogeneous so we can be more intentional about the levels of support that we provide.
— Elizabeth Góngora

Elizabeth Góngora a bilingual/English as a second language coordinator for the Sharyland ISD in Mission, Texas, provided a practitioner’s reflection on the study’s findings. Góngora shared that Sharyland ISD had seen similar results and that Spanish-speaking students in the district tend to take fewer advanced courses than students of other languages and English-only students. The district is focusing on scheduling, aligning available resources to meet individual needs, monitoring student academic and linguistic progress, and developing strategies to better understand the challenges students face to inform decisions about where to invest efforts.

Preview of upcoming reports from REL Southwest

Following the presentations, REL Southwest researchers Verónica Ruiz de Castilla, Ph.D.; Ayrin Molefe, Ph.D.; and Dalia Zabala provided a preview of studies that our English Learners Research Alliance is currently completing. These studies, expected to be published later this year, could have implications for EL teachers in the Southwest and other regions.

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