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R&D

 n H. Gary Cook, Timothy Boals, and Todd Lundberg

Academic achievement for English learners


What can we reasonably expect?

A
s the cultural and negotiate multiple academic often use the passive voice
linguistic diversity environments, make sense of in their writing and speak-
of U.S. schoolchil- complex content, articulate ing. For example, rather than
Reaching language dren grows and as their understanding of that stating what a plant root or
federal legislation content in academic forms, leaf does (active voice), a bi-
proficiency takes time
mandates greater account- and assess their own growing ology teacher is more likely
and requires attention to ability in school districts, understanding. That is, they to describe a general process
students linguistic, cultural, states are feeling a sense of learn to use academic lan- through which water and nu-
urgency to support successful guages. trients are absorbed by root
and academic needs. outcomes for English learn- systems and are transported
ers. to leaves where carbohydrates
Over 5 million students are Instruction for English and sugars are produced (pas-
learning English in Americas language learners has sive voice). Why? Because
public schools, account- the passive voice suggests dis-
ing for more than 10% of shifted emphasis from tance or objectivity. Similarly,
the K-12 population. Thats supporting social English each academic discipline uses
an increase of over 50% in specialized vocabulary, gram-
the last decade alone. This to emphasizing more matical structures, and dis-
demographic change has academic English; the course features. All students
been matched by changes in must learn to speak, write,
H. GARY COOK (hcook@
national policy. Before No research on academic and think in these special-
wisc.edu) is research director,
Child Left Behind, states set achievement for English ized ways, but the journey for
TIMOTHY BOALS is director,
their own accountability poli- English learners is longer and
and TODD LUNDBERG is
cies. Now, they must demon-
learners strongly supports more difficult.
project assistant at the World-
strate that English learners this shift. In this article, we share
class Instructional Design
are making progress in Eng- findings about the journey
and Assessment Consortium,
lish and achieving challeng- to English proficiency for
Wisconsin Center for Education
ing academic content stan- Education research de- English learners and offer
Research, University of
dards. When the Elementary scribes the language demands insights on how to establish
Wisconsin-Madison.
and Secondary Education Act English learners face in clear expectations for English
(ESEA) is reauthorized, it American schools in terms learners and their schools.
R&D appears in each issue of will likely continue the trend of the linguistic and literacy We address the relationship
Kappan with the assistance of of establishing and meeting skills associated with core between academic language
the Deans Alliance, which is explicit expectations for this academic subject areas (An- and academic content profi-
composed of the deans of the growing population. strom et al., 2010). These ciency, the rate at which Eng-
education schools/colleges at Assuring that English skills involve more than lish learners acquire academic
the following universities: Harvard learners succeed has proven specialized, content-specific English, and the time needed
University, Michigan State to be much more challenging vocabulary. Proficient use of for English learners to be-
University, Northwestern University,
than most educators assumed. English in science class, for come English proficient.
The challenge appears to be example, involves the ability Specifically, we focus on
Stanford University, Teachers
rooted in what it means to to communicate scientifi- two questions:
College Columbia University,
learn English in school. cally. That is, English used
University of California, Berkeley, Academically successful Eng- in science classrooms draws What does it mean to be
University of California, Los lish learners do not simply on vocabulary, grammar, and English proficient?
Angeles, University of Michigan, learn to manage their every- discourse unique to science. How long does it take
University of Pennsylvania, and day lives in English-speaking For example, scientists English learners to reach
University of Wisconsin. contexts; rather, they learn to seek to be objective. They this status?

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There isnt enough good Student) is defined in part as be described objectively. This ine the relationship between
research in this area to give a student: article focuses exclusively on these two types of assessment
clear answers to those who the first criterion, while ac- more rigorously.
teach English learners, but whose difficulties in speak- knowledging that the second To describe English pro-
some studies provide valu- ing, reading, writing, or un- is at least as important. ficient status relative to state
able insights. Also helpful are derstanding English may be An English learners ability content assessment perfor-
discoveries from the World- sufficient to deny the indi- to be proficient on a state con- mance, however, states first
Class Instructional Design vidual (i) the ability to meet tent assessment is a product of had to develop a working
the states proficient level
and Assessment Consortium content knowledge and pro- definition of that relation-
of achievement on State as-
(WIDA), a 27-state alliance sessments . . . ; (ii) the abil- ficiency in academic English. ship. States in the WIDA
that shares English language ity to successfully achieve WIDA has begun to explore Consortium defined Eng-
proficiency standards and as- in classrooms where the this relationship using state lish language proficient as
sessments, and engages in language of instruction is assessment results. NCLB re- the point at which students
research and professional de- English; or (iii) the oppor- quires states to annually assess English language proficiency
velopment. tunity to participate fully in English learners in their Eng- becomes less related to aca-
society. lish language proficiency and demic achievement. Beyond
to use those assessment results this point, English learners
Federal policy This definition is critical to to define what English pro- performance on content as-
The English that teach- understanding what English ficient means. When NCLB sessments is more related to
ers speak with students in proficient means, at least was passed, many states did content knowledge than to
the classroom is different from the federal perspective. not use academic language as- language proficiency.
from the English spoken It establishes three criteria to sessment data to help define Note one important dis-
on the playground, in the identify what it means to be English proficient. Instead, tinction: Federal law does not
mall, or at home. English English language proficient: they used professional judg- say that in order to be English
used in informal settings has 1) proficiency on state con- ment, a somewhat subjective language proficient, English
less complex grammatical tent assessments, 2) success method. But after several learners must be proficient
forms, few uses of technical in the classroom, and 3) full years of including English in academic content. Rather,
vocabulary, frequent use of participation in society. What learners in both state aca- they must have the ability to
slang and idioms, frequent full participation in society demic content and English be proficient. How might we
cultural and contextual ref- means is debatable; the first language proficiency assess- determine what that ability
erences, and a much more two criteria can more easily ments, states began to exam- is? One simple approach is to
personal sense. By contrast,
academic language has more FIG. 1.
complex grammatical forms,
Boxplot of state reading content scale scores by English language
more technical vocabulary,
less use of slang and idioms, proficiency level
clearer references, and a
more objective sense. More- 700
over, different academic
disciplines have their own 650
discourses. These aspects
of language are strongly as- 600
sociated with literacy and
academic achievement. To 550
Reading scale score

develop academic language Procient


requires support, instruction, 500
and enculturation. English
language instructional pro- 450
grams that support English
learners in American schools 400
have shifted emphasis from
supporting social English to 350
emphasizing more academic
English. This shift is strongly 300
supported by research on
English language develop- 250
ment in schools.
In the No Child Left Be- 200
| | | | | |
hind Act (NCLB), an English 1 2 3 4 5 6
learner (formerly known as English language prociency level
a Limited English Proficient

V93 N3 kappanmagazine.org 67
R&D 
identify the English language dents language proficiency In a paper examining Eng- data may show something
proficiency level where over level, the less likely he or lish learners language pro- specific to that cohort. Sec-
half of the English learn- she is to be proficient. This ficiency growth, Cook and ond, about one-third of the
ers score proficient on state type of analysis also points to Zhao (2011) examined the English learners who started
content assessments. Clearly, problems with accountability time needed to attain an Eng- in 2006 were unaccounted
at that language proficiency models that do not take into lish language proficient score for, due, we suspect, to the
level, most English learners account English learners in one WIDA state. Figure high mobility of English
are successful on state content proficiency levels. 2 displays results from their
assessments. analysis.
The boxplot in Figure 1 This study looked specifi- States in the WIDA
provides an example of this How to boost cally at how many students Consortium defined
simple analysis, using results proficiency? with the same initial language
from one states English lan- There is a perception that proficiency level attained English language proficient
guage proficiency assessment learning English in school an English proficient level as the point where
and academic content read- should take, at most, a couple (termed pass rate in the fig-
ing assessment. The English of years. But the available re- ure) in five years. Two-thirds students English language
language proficiency (ELP) search suggests that it takes of students starting at an ELP proficiency becomes
levels are on the horizontal much longer. For example, level of 4 attained proficiency
axis, and the states academic Hakuta et al. (2000) write: in five years. Only 10% of less related to academic
reading content scale scores students at the lowest level achievement.
are on the vertical axis. The The overriding conclusion attained a proficient score in
line on the vertical axis rep- . . . is that even in districts five years. Thus, where stu-
resents the reading proficient that are considered the dents started affected how learner students. Third, this
level on this assessment for a most successful in teach- many attained proficiency. growth trend was observed
ing English to [English
single grade. Several caveats need to be over a single five-year period
learner] students, oral pro-
Notice that as ELP level ficiency takes three to five stated about these findings. in a single state. There is no
increases, the distribution of years to develop and aca- First, this analysis looks only reason to believe this rate of
students reading scales scores demic English proficiency at students who started in the growth is what it should be or
also increases. In each box- can take four to seven years. 2006 school year; thus the could be. Arguably, students
plot, the line in the middle
represents the median; the FIG. 2.
diamond represents the mean An analysis presuming a five-year exit timeline for EL students in
(average). The median read- a WIDA state
ing scale score for students at
ELP level 1 is somewhere be-
70
tween 350 and 400, while the
average reading scale score
for students at this level is 60
slightly less than 400. At ELP
level 5, the median and mean 50
reading scale score is above
the proficient line. At this
Pass rate

40
point, over half of English
learner students in this grade
30
received a proficient score
on the states reading content
assessment. Based on our as- 20
sumption, the English lan-
guage proficient point would 10
be somewhere between ELP
level 4 and ELP level 5 for 0
this grade in this school year. | | | |
This analysis can be re-
2007 2008 2009 2010
peated for other grades and School year
other subject areas. Experts
can use these analyses to es-
tablish or verify what English
Level 1 Level 2 Level 3 Level 4
proficient means in a state.
Several states have done this,
and similar trends have been In Figure 2, only four years are shown because students initial proficiency level was received in the 2006 school
observed: the lower a stu- year.

68 Kappan November 2011


starting at lower proficiency and reward growth over time
levels should be attaining and define academic achieve-
English proficient scores at ment appropriately. The re-
higher rates within five years, authorization of ESEA will
but we do not have evidence likely mean a push for even
that this occurs. greater accountability for
These caveats notwith- English learners. Let us hope
standing, Cook and Zhaos that it pushes us to address
study tends to confirm pre- their linguistic, cultural, and
vious research findings on academic needs in ways that
time to proficiency for Eng- ensure their success. K
lish learners. It also points
References
out that it takes different
amounts of time to reach Anstrom, K., DiCerbo, P., Butler,
proficiency depending on F., Katz, A., Millet, J., & Rivera, C.
where a student begins. Un- (2010). A review of the literature on
der current accountability academic English: Implications for
policy, English learners are
K-12 English language learners.
placed into a single subgroup,
Arlington, VA: George Washington
with the implication that they
University Center for Equity and
are a homogeneous group
with similar needs and rates Excellence in Education.
of growth. Cook and Zhao Oral language proficiency takes three to five years to Callahan, R.M. & Gndara, P.C.
clearly show that English
develop, and academic English proficiency can take four to (2004). On nobodys agenda:
learners who begin at differ-
Improving English language
ent proficiency levels attain seven years.
learners access to higher
proficiency at different rates.
The variation measured in education. In M. Sadowski (Ed.),
this study does not take into Teaching immigrant and second-
account that English learners English learners and non- language development within language students: Strategies
come from a variety of native Hispanic white students on socioculturally appropriate for success (pp. 107127).
languages, come from many the 2005 NAEP were 35% environments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
cultures, or have different in 4th grade and 50% in 8th More specifically, the re- Education Press.
educational backgrounds and grade. A 2006 Government search presented here has at
experiences in their home Accountability Office (GAO) least two implications: First, Cook, H.G. & Zhao, Y. (2011).
countries. Given this groups study of state test data found comparisons between Eng- How English language proficiency
essential heterogeneity, dif- that a smaller percentage of lish language proficiency and assessments manifest growth:
ferent timelines to profi- English learners achieved academic content proficiency An examination of language
ciency should be expected. proficient test scores on con- measures must be part of the proficiency growth in a WIDA
Thus, the four- to seven-year tent tests than any other sub- process that states use to de- state. Paper presented at the
timeline suggested in the lit- group. English learners are fine what English proficient annual meeting of the American
erature seems reasonable. also nearly twice as likely as means. Second, representa-
Educational Research Association,
their native English-speaking tions of the growth of Eng-
New Orleans, LA, April 2011.
peers to drop out of high lish learners achievement
Conclusion school (Rumberger, 2006). must respect the fact that Hakuta, K., Butler, Y.G., & Witt,
English learners consis- For American schools to English learners grow at dif- D. (2000). How long does it
tently perform below grade address this achievement gap, ferent rates. These growth take English learners to attain
level in all content areas on they must define proficient rates are mediated by many
proficiency? Berkeley, CA:
accountability measures. in terms of the language factors; clearly, one is stu-
University of California Linguistic
On the 2005 National As- demands of academic class- dents initial proficiency level.
Minority Research Institute.
sessment of Educational rooms and the lengthy pro- Research also points to other
Progress (NAEP), 46% of cess of becoming able to meet important variables that af- http://escholarship.org/uc/
English learner 4th grad- those demands. If policies are fect growth, such as student item/13w7m06g#page-1
ers scored below basic in better informed, resources poverty and access to aca-
Rumberger, R. (2006). Tenth-
mathematics, compared to and guidance for practice demic curriculum (Callahan
grade dropout rates by native
18% of non-English learn- must follow. Research sug- & Gndara, 2004).
language, race/ethnicity, and
ers; for 8th graders, 71% of gests that the academic In an increasingly diverse
English learners scored be- achievement of English society, schools must be held socioeconomic status. ELL
low basic, compared to 30% learners in American schools accountable for the academic Facts, 7. http://lists.isber.ucsb.
of non-English learners. is inextricably tied to long- development of all students, edu/pipermail/lmresearch/2006-
Achievement gaps between term support for academic but in ways that acknowledge November/000325.html

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