Blog: Latino Ed Beat

For English Language Learners, a Fast Exit Leads to Future Success

A new study by the Migration Policy Institute has found that English language learners who exit bilingual or English as a second language programs within three years perform better in meeting basic math and reading standards than students who spend five years or more in such programs.The study highlights the challenges of so-called long-term English language learners, who spend years in the system without reaching English proficiency and often are at high risk of dropping out of high school.

“The weaker academic performance evidenced by long-term ELLS raises important questions on how to address their literacy and linguistic needs,” said MPI senior vice president Michael Fix. “However, with much still unknown about the reasons why students remain in ELL status for many years, it would not be prudent to conclude that language acquisition instruction should be time-limited.”

The study analyzed data from Texas, looking at students who were first-graders in 1995 and high school seniors in 2006. In Texas, about 17 percent of public school students were classified as limited English proficient in 2011. Texas law requires bilingual education when a school district enrolls 20 or more ELL students in the same grade who share a language .

Of those students who exited within three years, 86 percent passed Texas’ 11th grade math exam, compared with 59 percent of students who were in bilingual or ESL programs for five years or more and 44 percent of students enrolled in such programs for seven or more years.

Many of the long-term students speak English proficiently but have poor literacy skills in English that hold them back. These findings are an important reminder that reporters should not assume that high-school students designated as ELLs are all new immigrants. I’ve often heard school administrators say recent immigrants limited in English are the ones who are drop out. A Texas ELL program director once told me she was frustrated that administrators in her district held this misconception that all older ELLs are recent immigrants. The uncomfortable truth is many of these ELLs have been in the system for a long time and are American-born. In the past, many of these Texas students didn’t graduate from high school because they had to pass 11th grade exams to get a diploma. Soon, students will also be required to pass end-of-course exams to move forward a grade.

In the MPI study, the top-performing students exited within three years and also attended Texas schools for all 12 grades. On the other end of the spectrum, researchers found that Hispanic ELLs whose parents refuse ESL/bilingual education programs were less likely to go to college. The study also found that students who worked while attending high school were more likely to enroll in college.

Read the complete study here. Vanderbilt University assistant professor Stella M. Flores obtained and analyzed the Texas data, and authored the report with Fix and policy analyst Jeanne Batalova. It raises a lot of questions: Are high student mobility and poorly constructed language acquisition programs to blame?