Study to Examine Achievement of Bilingual Students

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, is studying the effects of dual-language immersion on student achievement in Portland Public Schools with a three-year, $1.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences. The study is being conducted in partnership with the American Councils for International Education and the Portland Public School District.

Jennifer Steele, a policy researcher at RAND who serves as the study’s principal investigator, says that Portland’s lottery-based language immersion programs provide a strong backdrop for a randomized study. “This research design allows us to separate the effects of immersion itself from the characteristics of families who choose these programs for their children,” Steele noted. “The last randomized study of immersion education was undertaken in Canada 40 years ago and focused on native English speakers in a small program. Our study is set within a large urban district, focuses on four languages, and will look at effects on both native English speakers and English language learners. It builds on more-recent studies in the U.S. and Canada that have found positive effects of immersion but have not been able to ensure that these were due solely to the programs themselves.”

She and her team, co-led by Robert Slater at the American Councils for International Education, are comparing Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) test scores in math, language arts, and science, as well as attendance and behavior data, between students in the language immersion programs and their classmates who applied for but did not get into the classes. Researchers are also observing immersion and non-immersion classes and talking with principals and teachers in order to shed light on how immersion programs are implemented within a large school district.

Portland plans to offer eleven dual-language immersion programs this fall: eight in Spanish, and one each in Japanese, Mandarin, and Russian. Nearby districts like Lake Oswego and West Linn-Wilsonville are starting or expanding their own fledgling immersion programs, and Tigard-Tualatin this year approved its first language immersion classes for the fall.

As interest in dual-language immersion programs grows nationwide, the new study could add to the evidence in support of bilingual education.

The RAND study, which will continue through June of 2015, is examining data for the roughly 3,200 students who entered the lottery for language immersion in the 2004-05 school year through the 2010-11 school year.

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