Multilingual Students Succeeding in the U.S.

A new study finds that scores from students who speak a language other than English at home have improved dramatically over the last 15 years

Students who speak a language other than English at home have improved in reading and math much more substantially since 2003 than previously reported, according to a study published this month in Educational Researcher. Hidden Progress of Multilingual Students on NAEP by Michael J. Kieffer, associate professor of literacy education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, debunks a common myth that multilingual students and English Learners have made little progress in academic achievement in recent years, and that U.S. schools continue to fail these students.

“Educators and policymakers have been misled by traditional ways of looking at achievement data for English learners,” said Kieffer. “When we look at the broader population of multilingual students, we uncover remarkable progress.” 

Kieffer and the study’s co-author, Karen D. Thompson of Oregon State University’s College of Education, analyzed National Assessment of Educational Progress data from 2003 to 2015. The data demonstrated that although all students’ scores improved, multilingual students’ scores improved two to three times more than monolingual students’ scores in both subjects in grades four and eight. There is little evidence that these trends can be explained by cohort changes in racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, or regional composition.

The research also demonstrates that multilingual students are about one-third to one-half of a grade level closer to their monolingual peers in 2015 than they were in 2003. The data cannot identify the specific sources for the change in achievement but suggests that a bundle of policy changes which occurred between 2003 and 2015 may have moved schools in the right direction in serving multilingual students.

“Despite the dominant perception that these students have made little academic progress in recent years, our findings indicate there is real evidence of progress for this population,” said Thompson. “Students are showing what they know.”

This research was supported, in part, by grants from the Sper Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation, and the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education.

1 COMMENT

  1. I found this article interesting because, first of all, it once again debunks the myth that the American education is broken. Secondly, the study shows very positive results for English learners in terms of academic achievement in the last 15 years. What attracted my attention the most in this article was the quote: “The data cannot identify the specific sources for the change in achievement but suggests that a bundle of policy changes which occurred between 2003 and 2015 may have moved schools in the right direction in serving multilingual students.” No Child Left Behind was undoubtedly the most significant and impactful education reform that was in effect during those years and that shaped the face of the American education we see today. It was also a highly debated and criticized reform. Dr. Diane Ravitch, an education historian and a research professor at New York University, has been a vivid critic of NCLB and its high-stakes testing and test-based accountability. “By now, we should be able to point to sharp reductions of the achievement gaps between children of different racial and ethnic groups and children from different income groups, but we cannot… Many children continue to be left behind, and we know who those children are: They are the same children who were left behind 10 years ago,” states Ravitch. Well, if we believe this study, the children who were left behind 10 ago have been doing significantly better, and indeed reduced the achievement gap. I am ESOL teacher, and I am not a supporter of either NCLB or ESSA that replaced it in 2015, but I have to agree that despite all its flaws, NCLB was the first educational reform that drew serious attention to EL student population and brought about some fundamental changes including funding and new monitoring system of the academic performance. So what was NCLB: a disaster or a booster for ELs? It’s hard to say, but I want to believe that it helped more than it harmed.

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