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Do ELLs sink or swim in the mainstream?

New studies show that mainstreaming ELLs in the US does not have any one particular effect on their attainment at high school – outcomes can vary considerably.

Claudia Civinini looks at an important issue for educators and policy makers

To reclassify or not to reclassify? With more students than ever entering the US education system with limited English skills, this is the question keeping US policy makers and researchers busy.

About 10 per cent of all students in the US are English language learners (ELLs). Some of them make progress faster and get reclassified as ‘former English language learners’. While intuitively it may seem that reclassification – and then mainstreaming – could have a positive impact on students’ outcomes and graduation rates, the data is not that clear cut.

And how are ELLs faring at school? Again, this may depend on how we look at the data. A new study* published by the US Department of Education has found that ELLs’ graduation rates in the New York City (NYC) system don’t differ from other students’ so substantially if they are considered over six years instead of four. Looking at this longer time span enables us to take into account all the students who graduated late, and to get a better picture of ELLs’ achievements.

Interestingly, the statistically significant differences when looking over six years were actually between students who remained ELLs for their whole career (long-term ELLs) and students who were reclassified (short-term ELLs).

The study analysed high school graduation outcomes of 1,734 ELLs who started grade 5 or 6 in a NYC state school in the 2003–04 school year. The students were followed all the way through until two years after their expected graduation.

The authors say that they carried out the study because previous research only provided information on the performance of ELLs ‘at a particular point in time’.

Information on long-term outcomes, such as high school graduation rates and preparation for college, is ‘scarce’, they said.
According to the new data, about 64 per cent of all ELLs graduated on time, within four years of starting grade 9 – seven percentage points lower than the graduation rate among all students in the NYC public school system.

While ELLs have a lower on-time graduation rate, over six years the picture is much more positive. In fact, about 15 per cent of ELLs and 8 per cent of all other students graduate one or two years later than expected. This closes the gap: ELLs’ six-year graduation rate was ‘similar to the rate among all student in New York public schools’, the authors say.

But the difference between long-term and short-term ELLs was statistically significant: 21 per cent fewer long-term ELLs graduated on time than short-term ELLs. Also, 13 per cent more long-term ELLs graduated late than the short-term group.

The two cohorts differed also in the type of diploma they obtained. Students in the NYC state school system can study for one of three: either a Local Diploma, the popular Regents Diploma or the most rigorous Advanced Regents Diploma.

ELLs in general don’t differ from the rest of the student body in the type of diploma they choose. Their differences are again internal to the group: 31 per cent of short-term ELLs obtained an Advanced Diploma, compared to 4 per cent of long-term ELLs.

This data is important to track students’ choices after graduation. Since a smaller percentage of Local Diploma holders go on to college, this may signal that they have graduated from high school ‘inadequately prepared for college’, the authors say.

Results show that short-term ELL students generally did better. However, the authors point out that ‘the data cannot establish the source of these differences.’ Did students do better because they were reclassified or did they reclassify because they were doing better? The authors suggest that the two cohorts could differ in other ways (motivation, achievement, previous education experiences, etc.). Patterns identified in this report call for more investigation, they say.

This study was focused around NYC, but another recent study* published in the American Educational Research Journal analysed the effect of ELL reclassification on graduation rates across the US and found widely different results: mainstreaming appeared to be beneficial in some districts, but highly detrimental in others. This suggests that reclassification does not have a universally valid effect and is best understood on a local basis.


Policy makers, this research suggests, could make use of the data about the effect of mainstreaming on students in their district to adjust the type and quantity of support they provide to students close to meeting the criteria for reclassification – or they may modify the criteria themselves. However, this could be more difficult with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which says states must have uniform criteria for reclassification.

* ‘Graduation outcomes of students who entered New York City public schools in grade 5 or 6 as English learner students’, Kieffer and Parker. / ‘Evaluating English Learner Reclassification Policy Effects Across Districts’, Cimpian, Thompson, et al.