Multilingual students are making significant academic progress despite perceptions otherwise

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new analysis of multilingual students’ academic progress shows that the group’s achievement in reading and math grew substantially between 2003 and 2015, challenging the perception that these students have demonstrated few academic gains in recent years.

Multilingual students’ test scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress improved two to three times more than monolingual students’ scores in both reading and math in grades 4 and 8, researchers found.

Multilingual students are those who enter school speaking a language other than English as their primary language at home, while monolingual students enter school speaking only English. English learners are multilingual students who have not yet mastered English.

“Despite the dominant perception that these students have made little academic progress in recent years, our findings indicate there is real evidence of progress for this population,” said Karen Thompson, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Education, and a co-author of the study.

The results were published recently in the journal Educational Researcher. The study’s lead author is Michael J. Kieffer, associate professor of literacy education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development.

Educators and policymakers have focused on improving outcomes for English learners because they face achievement and opportunity gaps that means they are less likely to complete school and go on to higher education.

The period between fourth and eighth grade is typically the time many multilingual students will master English and be “reclassified” and no longer considered English learners. Once those students are no longer considered English learners, they are not included in assessments of progress of English learners, which can obscure the growth of the overall population, Thompson said.

“Often educators are looking only at the outcomes of students who are classified as English learners, but that is a revolving door as students master the language and are no longer considered to be learning English,” Thompson said. “This study gives us a better understanding of the broader, systemic outcomes for students who enter school speaking languages other than English. The findings are very different when you look at this larger group.”

The National Assessment for Education Progress, or NAEP, is designed as a broad assessment of students’ educational performance over time. Often referred to as the “nation’s report card,” the NAEP is the only educational assessment that allows comparisons across states, Thompson said.

The researchers’ review of NAEP scores for the entire multilingual population during the study period, 2003-2015, showed that while all students improved during the study period, students who enter school speaking a language other than English are making bigger academic gains than their monolingual, English-speaking peers.

“Educators and policymakers have been misled by traditional ways of looking at achievement data for English learners,” said Kieffer. “When we look at the broader population of multilingual students, we uncover remarkable progress.”

They found that multilingual students are one-third to one-half a grade level closer to their monolingual peers in 2015 than they were in 2003. The gain was two to three times more than the improvements of the monolingual students during that period.

“There may be some gaps that persist, but this indicates that the efforts of teachers and students in the classroom are paying off,” Thompson said. “We should be shifting away from the deficit narrative that suggests English learners are not making progress. We need to recognize successes while continuing to focus on areas of need.”

The gains coincide with a number of education initiatives designed to help English learners bridge achievement gaps with their peers, including implementation of dual language programs and changes in teacher preparation and licensing regarding working with multilingual students, but more research is needed to understand what’s helping this population make academic gains, Thompson said.

The study was supported in part by the Spencer Foundation, the William T. Grant Foundation and the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education.