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Study Looks at Time it Takes English Learners to Reach Literacy Targets


Wednesday, March 23, 2016


young hispanic girl writing in school

Differences Found Between Gender, Home Language, and Initial English Proficiency

Building on the findings of a previous study, a new REL Northwest study analyzed data for nearly 17,000 English learner students who entered kindergarten between 2005 and 2011 in seven Seattle-area school districts. The seven districts (Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Renton, Seattle, and Tukwila) make up the Road Map Project, an initiative aimed at doubling the proportion of students who are college and career ready by 2020. With a growing number of English learner students, districts and schools want to understand how long it takes students to gain proficiency in English and how the time varies according to different student characteristics. The study found students who entered kindergarten as English learners took a median of 3.8 years to be reclassified by Washington state as former English learners.

“Knowing the time that it takes students to develop English proficiency provides educators with a measure of how quickly they can expect students to progress and helps schools identify specific programs and practices that are successful in developing students’ language and literacy skills,” said REL Northwest’s Jason Greenberg Motamedi, co-author of the study. “For state agencies, this study suggests initial English language proficiency should be taken into account when determining appropriate targets for federal accountability measures.”

The study found students who entered kindergarten with advanced English proficiency were more likely to be reclassified than those who entered with basic or intermediate English proficiency, and female students were more likely to be reclassified than males.

The study also looked at five language groups in the region, each of which comprises at least 3 percent of the total sample: Spanish, Vietnamese, Somali, Russian and Ukrainian combined, and Cantonese and Mandarin Chinese combined. All other languages, 160 in total, were combined into an “other language” category. Speakers of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Russian and Ukrainian were more likely to be reclassified than Somali or Spanish speakers.

The study used survival analysis, a method from medical research that is used to examine the effects of individual characteristics (and "treatments") on the likelihood that an event will occur. Information about the survival analysis method and its use for similar studies in other states is also discussed in the study findings.

“Because of the method we used, we were able to isolate the effects of individual student level characteristics on time to reclassification and include the data from all the students in the sample group, including students who were not reclassified by the end of the study,” said Greenberg Motamedi. “This new analysis paints a more accurate picture of time to reclassification for students in Washington, and the method can be used by other states to do a similar analysis to estimate time to reclassification for their students.”

Over the past eight years, the number of students in Washington who speak a language other than English in the home increased more than 70 percent. Forty-four percent of those students did not speak English proficiently and were classified as EL students. Students who haven’t reached proficiency in English score lower on state assessments, take longer to graduate, and graduate at lower rates than their English-proficient peers.

Karen D. Thompson, Assistant Professor at the Oregon State University College of Education, and Malkeet Singh, Senior Advisor for Evaluation and Research at Education Northwest, are co-authors of the study.

The full report is available for download on the Institute of Education Sciences' website.