Hidden Progress of Multilingual Students on NAEP
Hidden Progress of Multilingual Students on NAEP

For Immediate Release: June 12, 2018

Tony Pals, tpals@aera.net
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin, cboylin@aera.net
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

New Research Finds Reading and Math Gains of Multilingual Students Have Outpaced
English-Only Speakers

Over 12 Years, NAEP Scores for Multilingual Students Improved
Two to Three Times More Than for Monolingual Students

Washington, D.C., June 12 – New research published today challenges the perception that multilingual students in the United States consistently perform poorly, have shown little academic progress, and are being failed by schools. Between 2003 and 2015, the gap in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores between multilingual and English-only speakers closed considerably, according to a study published online in Educational Researcher, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

The study, conducted by Michael J. Kieffer, an associate professor at New York University, and Karen D. Thompson, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, found that reading and math scores for multilingual students improved at two to three times the rate for English-only students over a 12-year period. For their study, Kieffer and Thompson analyzed data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as “the nation’s report card.”

“Our study finds that multilingual students who speak one or more languages other than English have shown remarkable improvement in reading and math achievement since 2003,” said Kieffer, who studies literacy education at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. 

While all students’ scores improved during this time—and scores were still higher, on average, for English-only students in 2015—the gap between English-only and multilingual students in fourth grade had closed by 24 percent in reading and 37 percent in math since 2003. For eighth-grade students, the gaps narrowed by 27 percent in reading and 39 percent in math.

The changes indicate that multilingual students are about one-third to one-half of a grade level closer in academic achievement to their monolingual peers in 2015 than they were in 2003. The researchers found little evidence that the findings are explained by changes in racial/ethnic, socioeconomic, or regional makeup 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. “When we look at the broader population of multilingual students, we uncover a new story of substantial academic progress.”

The study authors note that prior methods used to examine achievement data for English learners, which focused exclusively on the scores of students currently classified as English learners rather than incorporating both current and former English learners, have misled educators and policymakers about whether schools are getting better or worse in serving multilingual students.

For the study, multilingual students were identified as students who reported speaking another language or languages other than English at home. Thus, the group included students currently classified by their schools as English learners, students formerly classified as English learners, and students who speak another language(s) at home and were English proficient when they entered school.

Although the study found that multilingual students are achieving at higher levels now than in the past, a limitation of NAEP data is that it does not allow researchers to determine why this is the case. However, the authors note that an abundance of policy and practice changes affecting multilingual students implemented during the time period studied could have contributed to the closing of the academic gap.

“Our findings suggest that a wide variety of changes related to No Child Left Behind, as well as other state- and district-level policies and practices, may have moved schools in a positive direction in serving multilingual students,” said Kieffer. “Prior research has found that NCLB increased attention on the performance and needs of English learners.”

In addition, during those years, dual language immersion programs, which have been shown to benefit English learners, expanded rapidly in many states, and multiple states expanded certification requirements for teachers of English learners, which may have better prepared teachers to meet the needs of multilingual learners.

“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 at the federal, state, district, and school levels may have together been more beneficial than harmful,” said Kieffer. “As schools begin to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, evaluating new changes in policies and practices for multilingual students will be essential.”

The full article can be viewed online HERE.

Funding note: This research was supported by grants from the Institute of Education Sciences, the Spencer Foundation, and the William T. Grant Foundation.  

To speak with lead study author Michael J. Kieffer, please contact Tony Pals at tpals@aera.net or Collin Boylin at cboylin@aera.net.

About AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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