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Students remaining in English language classes too long, study shows

October 28, 2009 |  1:22 pm

Nearly 30% of Los Angeles Unified School District students placed in English language classes in early primary grades were still in the program when they started high school, increasing their chances of dropping out, according to a study released Wednesday.

More than half of those students were born in the United States and three-quarters had been in the school district since first grade, according to the report by The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC.

The findings raise questions about the teaching in the district’s English language classes, whether students are staying in the program too long and what more educators should do for students who start school unable to speak English fluently.

 “If you start LAUSD at kindergarten and are still in ELL classes at ninth grade, that’s too long,“ said Wendy Chavira, assistant director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. “There is something wrong with the curriculum if there are still a very large number of students being stuck in the system.”

Researchers tracked the data on 28,700 students from the time they started sixth grade in 1999 until graduation in 2005. They found that students who were moved to mainstream classes by the time they were in the eighth grade were more likely to stay in school, take advanced placement courses in high school and pass the high school exit exam than students who remained in English language classes.

Mary Campbell, who is in charge of English language learning programs at LAUSD, said students must learn English as well as the grade-level material to move into mainstream classes. That often takes longer than learning the language, she said.

“We are aggressively looking at supporting these longtime English learners to ensure that they get the support needed to reclassify in a timely manner,” she said.

The vast majority of the students in the segregated language classes are not recent immigrants but rather U.S.-born youths, according to the study. Nearly 70% of all students placed in the English language learning program were born in the United States.

Previous studies have shown that English language learners generally score lower on standardized tests than their English-only classmates for various reasons. Other studies have shown that students in English language classes are usually placed with less-experienced teachers, focus on language skills rather than content and are segregated from students who speak English.

“The United States has never learned what is the best way to teach English to English learners,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. “That’s really a shortcoming.”

The earlier students switch to regular classes the better, the new study showed. Students who moved out of English classes by third grade scored as much as 40 points higher on standardized tests than those who stayed in the classes. If the students moved out by fifth grade, they scored about 10 points higher than their peers.

And in some cases, students who were in English learning programs and then moved out performed better than students who never were placed in the classes.

All students who speak a second language at home must take a test to see whether they should be placed in separate classes for English learners. Once they are in, they must take another test to get out. But Pachon said the process to get in is easier than it is to get out.

Though the study didn’t determine why students were staying in English language programs for so long, researchers say schools may avoid moving English learners into mainstream classes to keep test scores high.

--Anna Gorman