Study Reveals Misconceptions about English Learners

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students who began kindergarten as English learners (ELs), on average, progressed to eighth grade with academic achievement similar to or better than their peers who began kindergarten proficient in English, finds a new study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Nearly 80% of CPS ELs achieved English proficiency by eighth grade, with the majority (76%) becoming proficient by fifth grade. ELs who demonstrated English proficiency by eighth grade had higher attendance, math test scores, and core course grades than their peers who were never classified as ELs; reading test scores and Freshman OnTrack rates were similar.

For the one in five ELs who did not reach proficiency by the end of eighth grade, school was more challenging—attendance, grades, and test scores were lower than those of their peers who did attain proficiency by the end of eighth grade. More effective supports are needed to serve these students, and the authors suggest there may be an opportunity to identify these students early on—in kindergarten or first grade.

The groundbreaking study, English Learners in Chicago Public Schools: A New Perspective, stands in contrast to previous publicly available data that has shown ELs academically far behind their peers. Previous studies have reported data on active ELs—defined as those students who have not yet reached proficiency on a state English test—at a specific moment in time.

“The Consortium study is different because 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.”

The study’s methodology and key findings are important because one-third of CPS students are classified as ELs at some point in their academic careers. The report demonstrates that the statistics currently used for accountability overlook how well most ELs are performing in school.

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