ELLs take 5-6 years to reach level playing field

iStock_000026636782XSmallIt takes five to six years for English Language Learners (ELLs) to become proficient enough at a language that they test equitably with native speakers, according to a recent study in Education Policy Analysis.

“If testing is to serve as an essential tool to inform the improvement of instructional practices and student learning, how can we have confidence in using test results that may not provide accurate information about how well a student is doing at school or in a subject matter?,” write the authors, who analyzed test data for a large population of Chinese and Spanish ELLs in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

“The issue becomes critical when testing results are used for high-stakes decisions impacting individual students.” To address this issue, a study was conducted from September 2001 until June 2004 to explore the development of ELL student performance on achievement tests in conjunction with developing English language proficiency.

Supported in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the study tracked performance on the SAT/9 mathematics tests for students from grades 2-5. When students are enrolled SFUSD, the district collects the student’s demographic information and English language proficiency is assessed. Students are classified into three categories: English Only (EO), when a student is from an English speaking background; Initial Fluent English Proficient (IFEP), when a student is from a non-English background but is proficient in English; and Limited English Proficient (LEP), when the student is from a non-English speaking background and is not proficient in English.

The majority of the ELLs at 2nd grade had been in the school district for three years. To examine language proficiency development, the researchers tracked correlations between students’ performance in math problem solving and math procedures. Correlations between the two are lower for ELLs than for native speakers because of language demands of solving math problems, they explain, i.e. native speakers have smaller differences in scores for math procedures and solving math problems. The researchers found it took five to six years for performance of Chinese ELLs and Spanish ELLs in math procedures and problem solving to converge with the national sample.

“Achievement testing for English Language Learners, ready or not?” by Sau-Lim Tsang, Anne Katz, and Jim Stack, Education Policy Analysis Archives, 2008 Volume 16 Number 1.

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