English learners aren’t lagging behind their peers in school, study finds

Many CPS students match or exceed classmates academically, contrary to previous research

Educators and policymakers have long thought that children who entered school still learning English lagged behind their fellow students—an idea backed by years of data.

But according to new research from the University of Chicago, many English learners eventually match, or even exceed, the academic achievements of their peers.

Released this week by the UChicago Consortium on School Research, the groundbreaking longitudinal study found that nearly 80 percent of students who entered kindergarten in Chicago Public Schools as English learners—as defined by their performance on a state test—gained proficiency by eighth grade.

In addition, those students had higher attendance rates, math test scores and core course grades than peers who had never been classified as English learners (ELs). They also showed comparable reading test scores and were on track to graduate at similar rates.

“One-third of CPS students begin school as ELs, so their strong academic performance is contributing to the academic growth we’re seeing in CPS overall,” said Silvana Freire, co-author and research analyst.

Those results stand in contrast to previous publicly available data, which had shown significant academic gaps between native English speakers and English learners. However, that data came out of studies that only examined English learners at a particular point in time.

The UChicago Consortium study, on the other hand, tracks students as they advance through school, thereby capturing the academic improvements of those who progress out of English learner status. That methodology is especially important because one-third of CPS students are classified as English learners at some point in their academic careers.

“For the first time we analyzed the long-term trajectories of 18,000 CPS students who began kindergarten as ELs and followed their progress all the way through eighth grade,” said Marisa de la Torre, senior research associate and managing director at the UChicago Consortium. “EL students are making progress, but the growth is not apparent when you’re looking at different groups of students each year.”

In addition to de la Torre and Freire, co-authors on the study were Elaine Allensworth, the Lewis-Sebring Director of the UChicago Consortium, and research analyst Alyssa Blanchard.

Other key findings from the study include:

  • More than 76 percent of CPS students who began kindergarten as ELs became proficient in English by fifth grade. Only an additional 2 percent reached proficiency between fifth and eighth grades.
  • About one-fifth of students who began kindergarten as ELs did not reach English proficiency by the end of eighth grade. This group of students was more likely to be male, and much more likely to be identified as needing special education services.
  • Those who fell short of English proficiency by eighth grade also struggled with declining attendance by the middle grades, considerably lower grade-point averages, and lower on-track-to-graduate rates.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the proportion of students who are English learners across the country grew 26 percent from 2000 to 2015.

Educators, policymakers and families must have comprehensive information to understand if schools are fully serving students who are working to attain proficiency in English while simultaneously learning the academic content for their grade level. The report demonstrates that the statistics currently used for accountability overlook how well most ELs are performing in school.

“It is vitally important to know how well individual schools and districts are serving ELs,” Blanchard said, “but with the current metrics, those schools that are most successful at teaching ELs could look the same, or worse, than schools where students show little growth.”

—This story was adapted from a UChicago Consortium on School Research press release.