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Understanding Patterns in English Learners’ Reclassification Might Help Schools Better Serve English Learner Students

Posted by Caroline Parker on November 8, 2016

How long does it take an English learner in US schools to learn English? Not surprisingly, there isn’t a simple answer to this question.

A new REL Northeast & Islands study, conducted at the request of the English Language Leaners Alliance, looked at how long it takes English learner students in New York City to be reclassified from English learner to former English learner. With a large and diverse English learner population—14 percent of its students are English learners and more than 41 percent speak a language other than English at home—the New York City public schools provide a unique setting to explore issues related to English learners’ academic outcomes.

The study report, “Patterns of English Learner Student Reclassification in New York City Public Schools,” was published on October 13 by the Institute of Education Sciences. The report details the study team’s analysis of a large district dataset, including nearly 230,000 students and nine years of student data, and provides important information about patterns in English language acquisition that can be helpful to school and district leaders interested in improving their programs for English learners.  (Read an EdWeek blog post about the study.)

To begin, the study team, comprised of REL researcher Michael Kieffer and me, looked at a group of students who entered New York City public schools in kindergarten and tracked them through seventh grade. We found that half of those students were reclassified as former English learner students within four years; that is, by the end of grade 3. The other half, however, took longer than four years to be reclassified. In fact, 25 percent of the students were still not reclassified after six years, thus becoming what are known in New York City as long-term English learners.

The study also examined some of the factors that are associated with the length of time it takes an English learner to become reclassified. We looked at students who entered a New York City school anytime from kindergarten through seventh grade, and found that students who entered in grades 6 or 7 took about a year longer to be reclassified than those who had entered in kindergarten.

The level of English proficiency that students bring with them to school also turns out to make a difference. Students who were considered to have below average English proficiency when they started school took an average of five years to become proficient, compared to only three years for students with above average English proficiency when they entered school.

Whether or not students get identified as having a disability also makes a difference. This study looked specifically at two disability categories that are associated with language: (1) specific learning disabilities and (2) speech and language impairments. We found that the median time to reclassification for English learner students with specific learning disabilities was about four years longer than that of their peers without disabilities, and the median time to reclassification for students with speech or language impairments was two years longer than that of students without these impairments, among students entering at any grade

For school and district leaders thinking about how to apply these study findings to the programs they provide for English learners, a few things stand out:

  • Students who enter US schools after kindergarten may well take longer to learn English than students who enter in kindergarten.
  • Students who enter school with low levels of initial English proficiency likely need different English language programs than those who enter school at higher levels.
  • Students with specific learning disabilities or speech and language impairments (and, indeed, all English learners with disabilities) likely need targeted, personalized programs to help them reach English proficiency.
  • Providing targeted instruction toward those students most likely to struggle with learning English may help them reach success sooner and prevent them from becoming long-term English learners.

Another aspect of the study to keep in mind was the decision to choose reclassification from English learner to former English learner as the indicator that students were proficient in English. Each state across the country makes its own determination of how and when to reclassify students. In New York state, for example, the decision is made based on student performance on the state-administered English proficiency assessment. Other states use other tests, however, and thus a student determined to be English proficient in one state might not be in another state.

Whether or not New York’s system for reclassification accurately identifies when students are English proficient is a question for another study, but one that shouldn’t be ignored. If students get reclassified as former English learners too quickly, they might not get all the support they need to be successful; if they get reclassified too late, they might not get access to challenging academic instruction.

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