Educators should not assume that a student’s lack of proficiency in English is the major reason for poor academic achievement. The quality of instruction is often a better predictor of academic performance.
Rebecca Callahan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Population Research Center, University of Texas, argues that placement of English learners in lower academic tracks “plays a much larger role than previously believed in predicting academic achievement.” Too often, these students end up falling further behind.
According to Callahan, previous research (Raudenbush, Rowan and Cheong, 1993) “found that it is not only the academic content of a class that varies according to track, but also the quality of the language and discourse.” In particular, the these authors noted in the earlier report that college-track classes featured “a higher incidence of instruction in higher order thinking skills such as problem solving and critical analysis.”
Callahan’s research, based on data collected from a rural 2,000-student high school in northern California, does not in any way suggest that English language is unimportant, only “that it is neither the sole nor the primary determinant of academic success.”
At the school, nearly a third (32.3%) of the students spoke a language other than English at home. Sixteen percent of the school’s students were limited in English proficiency; the remainder of the language-minority population was considered fluent. She identified three distinct English learner cohorts: long-term English learners, recent immigrants with a high amount of previous schooling, and recent immigrants with limited previous schooling. Six variables were used to measure academic achievement: GPA, proportion of credits passed, SAT9 reading, SAT9 math, CAHSEE language and CAHSEE math.
Track placement is key factor
Track placement proved significant in predicting all four non-language-based academic outcomes. English proficiency was significant only on the two language-based academic achievement measures: SAT9 reading and CAHSEE language arts.
Ninety-eight percent of the students in the sample had not enrolled in the coursework necessary for a 4-year college to be an option, making community college “the default higher education option,” Callahan says. Callahan urges educators to strive to integrate higher levels of language instruction alongside high-quality academic content. Focusing on providing the best education will ensure that all learners have access to the best possible instruction, she says.
“Tracking and High School English Learners: Limiting Opportunity to Learn”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2005, pp. 305-328.
Published in ERN November/December 2005 Volume 18 Number 9