Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

New Reports and Resources Around ELs and STEM

In recent months, several federal reports and resources related to English learner (EL) learning and education related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) have been released.

First, the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) released its third “data story” about ELs in US schools. This story, which builds on two previously released stories about the characteristics and educational experiences of ELs, focuses specifically on ELs’ NAEP performance and high school graduation rates. Through interactive infographics (many of which are built on data from the National Center for Education Statistics), the story shows that higher percentages of ELs are proficient in math than in reading, but that nearly half of all states experienced declines in the number of ELs who scored proficient in math between 2009 and 2017. The story also shows that graduation rates for ELs improved by 10 percentage points between 2010-11 and 2015-16 (from 57 percent to 67 percent), but still fall well below the rates for non-ELs (84 percent). While interesting and informative, the data story also underscores the necessity of research and development to produce better resources and information to support EL learning.

In that vein, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released English Learners in STEM Subjects: Transforming Classrooms, Schools, and Lives. This report examines what we know about ELs’ learning, teaching, and assessment in STEM subjects and provides guidance on how to improve STEM learning outcomes for these students. It reflects the consensus of a committee of EL experts that was chaired by NCER and NCSER grantee Dr. David Francis and included past grantees Dr. Okhee Lee and Dr. Mary Schleppegrell alongside a dozen other experts in EL education, STEM education, and teaching. One of the report’s central conclusions is that ELs develop proficiency in both STEM subjects and language when their classroom teachers provide them with opportunities for meaningful interaction and actively support both content and language learning. Given that many STEM teachers do not receive preparation to teach in this way, the report provides several recommendations to improve pre-service and in-service training. It also includes recommendations for how developers and publishers might produce better instructional materials and assessments to help both teachers and EL students. 

Efforts of both types – instructional preparation and development of new materials – may be further supported by two new toolkits released by the Office of Education Technology. The toolkits are designed for educators and developers, and each is organized around five specific guiding principles to help the targeted group approach education technology with ELs’ unique needs in mind. The principles for developers emphasize the importance of thinking ahead about EL needs for those who wish to make products for this population. Meanwhile, the educator principles center on issues of awareness, and encourage teachers to learn more about the features, platforms, and resources that are available for ELs in the world of education technology. The principles also complement one another – for example, developers are encouraged to offer instruction-focused professional development, and educators are encouraged to seek out the same.

Brought together, these resources provide a snapshot of ELs’ mathematics achievement, a summary of research evidence about learning and instruction for ELs in STEM, and a set of principles to guide instruction and development efforts in the technology space moving forward. They also make a clear case for continued investment in R&D efforts to support STEM learning for both EL students and their teachers. Since 2010, the National Center for Education Research has invested nearly $20 million across 13 research and researcher-practioner partnership grants that have focused on STEM learning and ELs. Several such grants are coming to a close in the 2019 fiscal year; watch this space for future blog posts about the products and findings from these projects.

The Value of Partnerships for Studying English Learner Education

English learners (ELs) can be a tricky student population to study. In some ways, these students who are learning English as part of their education are a homogenous population. For example, more than 75% of them speak Spanish, and more than half of the nation's 4.8 million EL students  are concentrated in grades K – 3. On the other hand, EL education can be very context-driven. For example, districts and states vary considerably both in the composition of their particular EL population, and in the specific policies, assessments, and instructional supports they use to guide ELs’ education.

In response to this latter point, some NCER grantees have figured out that one good way to study and support EL education is by working in close partnership with a specific education agency. In other words, don’t fight the place-based nature of EL education – rather, use it as an asset to make your research even more relevant.

There are several examples of IES-funded projects that have successfully worked using this approach. The most obvious are eight Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships we have funded that explicitly focused on ELs. These projects have tackled a range of EL-related issues including science education and trajectories through middle and high school, and have taken place in states like Utah and Oregon, and districts like Saint Paul, MN and Cleveland, OH. As intended for RPP projects, these partners have leveraged their mutual interests to complete rigorous analyses and create products with immediate value for practitioners (read more about one example here).

Partnerships and collaborations are not limited to the RPP competition, however. Some EL researchers have found ways to collaborate closely with agency partners even in the context of a more “typical” research project. One example of this is work done by Peggy Estrada with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Dr. Estrada’s Goal 1 grant focused on longitudinal patterns in EL performance before and after reclassification, or the point at which a student is deemed to no longer need the services and supports associated with EL status.

In LAUSD, reclassification decisions were made based on three criteria, and Dr. Estrada found that many students who are not reclassified miss only one of the three. She also observed that there are only eight different profiles that can describe a student’s status on the three criteria. She reasoned, further, that if teachers knew a student’s profile, they could tailor their supports to help the student meet the criterion on which he or she fell short.

To share these findings with LAUSD, Dr. Estrada created a number of actionable data visualization tools. These proved key in what happened next: LAUSD staff members Kathy Hayes and Hilda Maldonado immediately saw the value in Dr. Estrada’s findings and visualizations, and worked with their colleagues to create an English Learner Dashboard that incorporated both. The Dashboard is an interactive data tool that provides summary information about student reclassification profiles and allows staff to design reports tailored to their needs. LAUSD staff can download the names of students in each profile and generate reports with student names and detailed assessment results for each reclassification criteria.

Creation of this Dashboard is another great example of the value created through collaborations between researchers and practitioners – particularly for EL research. LAUSD staff cited the value of working with an external partner who provided objectivity and helped them to think more critically and deeply about an issue they found important. Dr. Estrada found that working with LAUSD enhanced both the validity and the utility of her research. In the end, both parties win – as do, more importantly, the EL students themselves.

Written by Molly Faulkner-Bond, Program Officer, NCER and Karen Douglas, former Program Officer, NCER

Understanding Outcomes for English Learners: The Importance of the ‘Ever EL' Category

The Institute of Education Sciences funds and supports Researcher-Practitioner Partnerships (RPP) that address significant challenges in education. In this guest blog post, Karen D. Thompson, of Oregon State University and Josh Rew, Martha Martinez, and Chelsea Clinton, of the Oregon Department of Education, describe the work their RPP is doing to better understand and improve the performance English learners in Oregon. Click here to learn more about RPP grants. This research will be part of a Regional Educational Laboratory webinar on June 21.


According to the most recent data, about 10 percent of K-12 students in U.S. public schools were classified as English learners (EL). But that only tells part of the story: a large proportion of students in U.S. schools are former ELs, who have attained proficiency in English and “exited” EL services. Currently, in most states and the nation, we do not know the size of the former EL group because states have only been required to monitor this group of students for a limited amount of time.

Education agencies and the media routinely report the achievement gap between current EL students and their non-EL peers. However, analyzing outcomes only for current EL students does not provide a complete picture of how well schools are serving the full group of students who entered school not yet proficient in English. We refer to this full group, which includes both current and former ELs, as Ever English Learners (Ever ELs).

Through our IES-funded partnership, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) and Oregon State University (OSU) has identified the full group of both current and former ELs in Oregon public K-12 schools. Using 2015-16 Oregon data, we looked at the proportion of Ever ELs who are current and former ELs at each grade level. As seen in Figure 1 below, former ELs outnumber current ELs in grades 6 and above, with the relative size of the former EL population increasing at each grade level.


Figure 1


Starting with the 2012-13 school year, ODE began annually reporting to the public the outcomes of Ever ELs (e.g., achievement and growth, chronic absenteeism, rates of freshmen on-track, and graduation rates). These annual reports include school and district report cards, the statewide report card, and technical reports corresponding to specific state initiatives, such as graduation rates, chronic absenteeism, assessment participation, and district EL accountability. 

In the past, states have typically reported achievement outcomes for students currently classified as ELs and compared these to outcomes for all students not currently classified as ELs. Under this reporting scheme, the non-EL subgroup consists of students never classified as ELs and former ELs.  With this grouping (Figure 2), graduation rates for ELs appear much lower than graduation rates for non-ELs (52.9 percent for ELs compared to 75.8 percent for non-ELs).           

  

However, it may be more appropriate in some situations to instead analyze outcomes for the full group of students who entered school as ELs (Figure 3). Under this alternative reporting scheme, if we combine outcomes for both current and former ELs to create the Ever EL group, we see that graduation rates for Ever ELs are much closer to graduation rates for students never classified as ELs (71.1 percent for Ever ELs compared to 75.6 percent for Never ELs).

While the low graduation rates for current ELs are certainly concerning, it is also important to know that former ELs are graduating at rates slightly higher than students never classified as ELs (77.9 percent vs. 75.6 percent, respectively), as shown in Figure 4.

This is particularly noteworthy since former ELs represent a larger proportion of the student population than current ELs at the secondary level.

In addition to annual reporting, the ODE began using data for Ever ELs in 2015-16 to identify districts in need of support, assistance, and improvement, as required by state law.  The state’s accountability system identifies the districts with the highest needs and lowest outcomes as measured by demographic indicators (such as economically disadvantage, migrant or homeless status) and outcome data (e.g., growth, graduation, and post-secondary enrollment) for Ever ELs. Identified districts conduct a needs assessment, identify evidence-based and culturally responsive technical assistance, develop a technical assistance implementation plan, monitor progress, and review outcomes and make necessary adjustments. Along with its applications for reporting and accountability, we have used the Ever EL framework to analyze special education disproportionality, documenting implications for research, policy, and practice.

To learn more about how education agencies are using the Ever EL category, join us and colleagues from New York City for a June 21 webinar, sponsored by Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands.

Looking Beyond the Label to Better Help English Learners

By Karen Douglas, NCER Program Officer, English Learners

The education of English learners (EL) continues to be a topic of great interest across the country. But there has been little research to identify what steps to take in order to best serve this diverse group of students.

In recent years, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) has funded a number of grants that are using data to better describe EL students and study the factors that are related to better educational outcomes. Findings from these studies are included in a recent policy brief by the Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) entitled “Improving the Opportunities and Outcomes of California’s Students Learning English: Findings from School District-University Collaborative Partnerships.”

Although these studies all took place in California, the key findings likely have implications across the United States.

(Editor’s note: In some places you will see EL students referred to as English language learners (ELL), language minority, or limited English proficient (LEP) students. However, English learner (EL) is the term used by IES).

Defining ‘English Learner’

The term ‘English Learner’ seems pretty straightforward. It denotes a student that doesn’t speak English as a first language and whose lack of English skills serves as an impediment to learning. However, this simple term belies the diversity of this group of students.

Many EL students were born outside the U.S., but some are American citizens who were born in this country. Some arrive in the U.S. having gone to school starting at a very young age, while others come to the U.S. as teenagers and may not have had access to regular instruction in their previous country. And some EL students—such as the recent influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America—come from war-torn countries, where they have experienced significant trauma and have social emotional needs, as well.

Some EL students do not speak any English, but others come to our schools with basic English skills. And while a majority of ELs speak Spanish at home, many others speak European, African, and Asian languages.

Given all the ways that EL students differ from each other, there is a pressing need to move beyond the simple “EL” designation in order to better address the educational needs of these students.

You can learn more about the characteristics of EL students in a recent post to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) blog.

Meeting the Needs of EL Students

The context in which students designated as EL attend school is equally varied.  Schools differ greatly in the criteria they use to identify students as ELs, as well as the rules for deciding that a student is no longer an EL.

In addition, some students attend schools at which the majority of students are ELs, whereas others are one of a handful of ELs in the school. Instructional programs, even among those that provide support for the home language, vary widely in regard to the amount of instruction in another language a student will receive and the manner in which it is integrated across content areas.

Leaving EL Status

The complexity of reclassification out of EL status is a central issue in the PACE brief because there is a concern that EL students may not have the same access to the full curriculum as their non-EL peers.  The brief shares study findings in which EL students are overrepresented in lower-track classes, less likely to take important gateway math courses, and are more likely to be in classes with a higher percentage of ELs.

The studies in the PACE brief suggest that it is beneficial for students to be appropriately reclassified out of EL status, but these studies show that there is great variability in the stated criteria used by schools and districts as well as inconsistency in implementation. The report also highlights the potential benefits of bilingual and dual language programs both for learning in English as well as maintaining the first language.

Key Findings
 
The PACE policy brief makes three broad recommendations. Again, while these recommendations are directed at serving EL students in California, these are ideas that can be used throughout the country:

  • Improve the ways in which students who need language supports are classified and reclassified in order to improve alignment across districts, and alignment between classification and services;
  • Be more systematic in how data on EL students are collected and used, by tracking students’ progress over longer time periods and including all students who were ever EL students in accountability metrics; and
  • Improve EL students’ educational opportunities in school by expanding access to core content, bilingual instruction, and well-prepared teachers. 

Through better attention to the diverse characteristics of students designated as ELs, schools across the country will stand a better chance of both improving educational opportunities, as well as benefiting from the many contributions that EL students can provide to our school communities.