New research calls into question a widespread perception that multilingual students in the United States consistently perform poorly, muster only marginal academic progress and are being failed by school systems.
In fact, a once-considerable gap in fourth-and eighth-grade reading and math scores between multilingual and English-only speakers in 2003 narrowed a great deal by 2015. Specifically, the test scores among multilingual students improved at two or three times the rate of their monolingual peers during that 12-year period.
These are among the findings published this month in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). The findings are based on a study of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the congressionally mandated project commonly known as “the nation’s report card.”
The report’s lead author, Dr. Michael J. Kieffer of New York University, called the progress shown by multilingual students “remarkable.”
The study defined multilingual students as those who, at one time or another, reported speaking primarily a non-English language at home. That included youths who were categorized by their schools as English learners, those formerly categorized as English learners and youths who spoke other languages at home but were proficient in English by the time they began school.
Estimates from multiple states suggest that at least 25 percent of students who entered kindergarten as English learners have been reclassified before they reach fourth grade, and at least 70 percent of them before eighth grade.
From 2003 to 2015, the test scores of all students improved, regardless of how many or few languages they could speak. Scores were higher, on average, for English-only students in 2015, according to the study.
However, the performance gap that year between multilingual and monolingual students in fourth grade had shrunk by 24 percent in reading and 37 percent in math.
Improvements were better for older students. Among eighth-graders, the disparities had narrowed by 27 percent in reading and 39 percent in math.
The progress indicated that students who spoke at least one language other than English were about one-third to one-half a grade level closer to their monolingual counterparts in terms of academic achievement in 2015 than they were 12 years earlier.
The study’s authors found very little evidence that connected their research findings to changes in racial/ethnic, socioeconomic or regional composition of the student population.
“Our study challenges the dominant storyline among policymakers and the public emphasizing the underachievement of English learners and the failure of schools to meet their needs,” said Kieffer, an associate professor at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. He studies literacy education of students from linguistically diverse backgrounds.
The study’s co-author was Dr. Karen D. Thompson, an Oregon State University assistant professor of education who studies how policy, curriculum and teacher education intersect to shape the classroom experiences of multilingual youths.
Thompson and Kieffer noted that as recently as 2017, another NAEP report on key trends highlighted “the stall of non-English speakers.” One implication, they said, was the easy misperception that the challenges faced by English learners set them up for academic failure regardless of the quality of education they received, which reinforced deficit thinking about their lack of potential.
In their current report, Kieffer and Thompson pointed out that methods previously used to examine achievement data for English learners had focused only on students classified at the time as multilingual, rather than on current and former English learners. This might have misled educators and policymakers about whether schools were becoming better or worse in serving and supporting multilingual youth.
In their report, titled “Hidden Progress of Multilingual Students on NAEP,” the researchers surmised that “an abundance” of policy and practice changes that occurred during the 12-year period could have played roles in reducing the academic gaps.
For instance, dual-language immersion programs expanded in many states. Also, multiple states expanded the certification requirements for teachers of English learners, which may have better prepared them to meet the needs of multilingual students.
“A wide variety of changes related to No Child Left Behind may have moved schools in a positive direction in serving multilingual students,” Kieffer said. “Despite the downsides of No Child Left Behind, the substantial recent progress of multilingual students demonstrated in our research suggests that the bundle of various policies and practices may have together been more beneficial than harmful. As schools begin to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, evaluating new changes in policies and practices for multilingual students will be essential.”