Uneven reclassification of ELs impacts student grad rates

Uneven reclassification of ELs impacts student grad rates

(N.Y.) English learner graduation rates and academic outcomes may suffer from uneven reclassification policies, according to a recent multi-state study of the effects of statewide polices on local student outcomes.

Researchers from New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development found drastic variability between districts in how reclassification affected students. Some districts saw that children who just barely make the cut for reclassification were as much as 80 percent less likely to graduate, while in other districts, similarly achieving students were 38 percentage points more likely to graduate than peers who stayed in an English learner setting.

“Notably, our findings revealed a wide array of effects of reclassification on achievement and graduation, ranging from large negative effects in some districts to large positive effects in others, even when considering students subject to the same state-level policies,” Joseph Robinson Cimpian, associate professor of economics and education policy at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s lead author, said in a statement.

“This variability tells us that we should not default to a belief that reclassification is universally beneficial or detrimental,” he said.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states are required to develop uniform statewide reclassification policies to determine the point at which English language learners are considered English proficient.

More than a third of school-age children in the U.S. are projected to be immigrants or the children of immigrants by 2050, according to the Pew Researcher Center, and many of these children will be classified as English learners. Advocates for English learners have long argued that standards for reclassification policies should not be set too low. Student achievement could be significantly harmed, they say, if a child enters English-proficiency status too soon and a district can’t provide services later if it becomes clear that the student was prematurely reclassified.

NYU’s study, published last month in the American Educational Research Journal, found that the criteria for reclassification varied significantly among districts within a state, and even between schools within a district.

Researchers used longitudinal data from more than 107,500 students in two anonymous states—one in the Southeast and one in the Northwest. Authors of the report note that both states were selected for their variability in reclassification criteria, as well as the potential created by state policies for variability within local districts.

One state provides a lot of flexibility in reclassification by permitting multiple pathways to reclassification by allowing decisions to be based on at least two of five different criteria, while also allowing parents, teachers and administrators to reclassify a student before attaining the exit criteria or to retain a student as an English learner if the child attains the exit criteria.

The second state, however, only requires that students attain a score of advanced on the state English language proficiency assessment, although districts are permitted to consider additional criteria, authors said.

As states develop statewide policies, researchers recommend lawmakers and other policymakers make adjustments as needed in the reclassification criteria they adopt, as well as services provided, and resources available to struggling districts and students after being reclassified as English proficient.

Currently, there is a misalignment between state thresholds for reclassification and the instruction and services available in districts, researchers said. Addressing the issue may mean lowering or raising the state’s reclassification threshold, or modifying instruction and services for students near the threshold.

In a district where reclassification is found to have a negative effect on student outcomes, for example, researchers would suggest states provide additional resources for schools to provide extra language development support for students right after reclassification.

“On one hand, establishing the same criteria has the benefit of facilitating comparisons across districts and providing a common metric by which to assess English learner status for students who move across district boundaries,” Cimpian said. “On the other hand, requiring a common threshold across the state restricts the ability of a district to adjust the threshold to meet the needs of its own students given the services that the district provides.”

Cimpian and his co-authors from Oregon State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign concluded that policymakers should not default to a belief that reclassification is either universally beneficial or detrimental, but that the process should be supplemented with resources for after reclassification.