In Nevada, over 17 percent of K–12 students are English learners (ELs) — one of the highest shares of any state. As this population grows, so do state policymakers’ concerns about successfully supporting these students’ academic progress. Current policies designed to serve ELs are not particularly nuanced, despite research highlighting how their educational experiences vary immensely and are influenced by many factors. For example, established research on ELs’ academic achievement suggests their year-to-year performance lags behind their native English-speaking peers. Why is this the case? The disparity is partially attributed to obstacles created by ELs’ need to simultaneously master English and subject content in school. Therefore, understanding patterns of progress for both English language proficiency and subject content could result in more effective instruction, and ultimately, higher achievement.

A new study released by the Regional Education Laboratory delves into these patterns for students in Nevada’s two largest school districts. The study tracks progress for three cohorts of students (starting in K, 3rd, and 6th grade) on Nevada’s English Language Proficiency Assessment, math content tests, and reading content tests across five years.

In order to examine English proficiency patterns, researchers Eric Haas, Min Huang, Loan Tran, and Airong Yu calculated cumulative reclassification rates (the percentage of students reaching full English proficiency) and cumulative passing rates on reading and math tests (the percentage of students passing the tests) for each cohort — also including results by characteristics like special education and gender. Additionally, they explore how English proficiency level influences content test passing rates and whether students make Nevada’s yearly progress expectations for English proficiency.

The study’s results highlighted several important patterns for policymakers to consider. For English language proficiency, all three cohorts show a steady progress across the five years and over half of the students are reclassified as proficient in each. Results also show an expected pattern regarding initial English proficiency: students with initially higher proficiency levels have higher reclassification rates. Specifically, Kindergarteners with a high proficiency level (but still below proficient) have the highest reclassification rate, 100 percent, by the end of the study.

Special education status also impacts students’ reclassification rates, as ELs eligible for special education services have lower reclassification rates than other English learner students across all three cohorts, and there  evidences suggests an increasing gap over time. According to the researchers, this reclassification gap between special education eligible English learners and their non-eligible peers is the largest among all results.

Expected results also emerge for the influence of socioeconomic status (SES) and gender on reclassification rates. Lower SES ELs have lower reclassification rates compared to their higher SES peers. Rates are also lower for male English learners compared to their female peers.

The study found that ELs with stronger English skills were more likely to pass reading and math assessments. Passing rates on both tests were lower for English learners who were special education eligible at the beginning for the study.

Perhaps the most concrete finding for policymakers is the relationship between students’ initial English proficiency level and their year-to-year progress based on Nevada’s English acquisition expectations. Nevada’s annual measurable achievement objective for English learners requires an increase of one English proficiency level per school year.  Results from the study suggest progress from year to year varies greatly depending on cohort and proficiency level upon entry. Across all cohort groups, fewer than half of students actually meet the yearly progress expectations and the only subgroup have all members  reclassified by the end of the study was Kindergarteners who started at the highest proficiency level.

As a whole, the study’s results suggest a profile of factors affecting the achievement and progress for English learners in Nevada, including special education eligibility, gender, SES, and initial English proficiency. These patterns reveal potential avenues for Nevada’s policymakers to explore as they attempt to improve education for English learners across the state. Special education-eligible ELs should be a top priority, given the wide and increasing gaps researchers found between these students and their peers.

Researchers also suggest Nevada reexamine its annual benchmarks for English language acquisition. The widely varying and generally low percentages of students actually meeting Nevada’s year-to-year requirement could be symptomatic of an overly rigid or simplistic progress measurement system. As the patterns of progress revealed in the study indicate, ELs’ experiences and achievement depend on multiple factors. These experiences could be better reflected in a flexible system that allows educators to more accurately track their students’ unique paths and progress patterns. Federal legislation has recently granted states more autonomy on EL accountability policies; hopefully many will take advantage of the opportunity to build in this sort of nuance.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Kristina Rodriguez

Kristina Rodriguez is a Summer 2016 intern with New America’s Education Policy program. Previously, Kristina conducted research and evaluation for preschool and afterschool programs in Chicago, IL. She is currently pursuing a master’s in public policy from Georgetown University and has a bachelor of science in human communication, concentrated in cognitive science, from Northwestern University.