Time to Proficiency for Hispanic English Learner Students in Texas: Q&A with Researcher Rachel Slama

REL Southwest recently released the study, Time to Proficiency for Hispanic English Learner Students in Texas. The study examined the average time it took a cohort of grade 1 Hispanic EL students in Texas to attain English language proficiency and meet state standards in reading and math. To learn more about the study, we asked Rachel Slama to provide an overview of the study and discuss the importance and implications of the results. Dr. Slama is an alliance researcher for REL Southwest’s English Learners Research Alliance and Texas Hispanic STEM Research Alliance.

Q:  Congratulations on recently completing your study, Making Connections: Time to Proficiency for Hispanic English Learner Students in Texas. Can you tell us a little bit about the research questions your study was exploring and why those questions are relevant to education leaders?

A: This study examined the time it took for Hispanic English learner (EL) students in Texas public schools to meet key academic milestones, including attaining English proficiency and satisfactory performance on reading and mathematics state assessments. The study also explored whether the chance of attaining these outcomes differed based on a student’s background or educational programming. Student background characteristics explored include a student’s level of English proficiency at school entry, whether they received special education services, and whether they were overage at the start of grade 1. Educational programming examined include a student’s English learner program type (English as a Second Language or bilingual) and enrollment in public prekindergarten.

The study questions are particularly relevant to education leaders under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) because the ESSA puts a national spotlight on how EL students fare in school. Each state must set realistic, yet ambitious, goals for improved academic achievement for the EL student subgroup, and for their progress and attainment of English language proficiency. This study is an example of how states can use historical data to inform realistic and ambitious timelines for reaching these educational milestones, and how EL students’ unique characteristics may shape those timelines.

Q:  Why is it important to understand the factors that influence the time it takes Hispanic EL students in Texas to attain English language proficiency and meet state standards in reading and math?

A: EL students in all states bring with them a rich set of experiences at home and school, which may influence how fast they meet key educational milestones. Recognizing this range of experiences can help education leaders set goals that assure that all EL students will attain proficiency in a timely fashion. Under the ESSA, education leaders are tasked with creating accountability goals that motivate schools to drive performance for EL students, while providing targeted assistance to schools with large proportions of EL students that need more support.

Understanding how EL students fare in middle and high school as well as the progress they make in elementary school is a starting point to reducing the number of students with long-term English learner classification. Long-term EL students are students who have spent most of their academic trajectories in U.S. schools but have not reached key education milestones.

Q:  What are some of the ways that education leaders might use the findings from the study to improve education for EL students?

A: Findings based on the records of more than 85,000 EL students in Texas—the state that serves the second largest EL population in the nation—may shed light on students in this subgroup that need additional supports early on in their education to stay on track to meeting important academic milestones later in elementary school. Starting grade 1 with a beginning level of English proficiency, being overage at grade 1, and being dual identified as an EL student with a disability were factors that placed these learners at greater risk for not attaining English proficiency and satisfactory performance in reading and mathematics, compared to their EL peers who did not have these characteristics. Although these findings might help education leaders target scarce resources to those EL students that need them the most, education leaders should consider how study findings apply to their state’s unique English learner context.

Future research should develop and examine the effectiveness of interventions that support EL students with the lowest levels of initial English proficiency, those who are overage, and those who also receive special education services. 


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