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Closing the Achievement Gap for Long-Term and Late-Arriving English Learners

A University of California at San Diego (UCSD)/Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Partnership Funded by the William T. Grant Foundation  


Project Overview                                                                                                                                                      

Research has shown that high proportions of English Learner (EL) students reclassified as English proficient – even those who remain economically disadvantaged – demonstrate academic achievement on par with native English speakers.  By contrast, EL students who have not been reclassified have poor educational outcomes compared with their reclassified peers.  Encouraged by the relative success of reclassified students, policymakers have put priority on moving ELs more quickly to reclassified status. 

This study focuses on two important groups of ELs – Long Term English Learners (LTELs) and Late-Arriving English Learners (LAELs – students whose first U.S. school enrollment occurs in middle school or later) – enrolled in grades 6 through 12 in California’s two largest school districts, the Los Angeles Unified (LAUSD) and San Diego Unified (SDUSD) School Districts.  The project has identified two broad research goals.  The first is to understand how the districts implement their EL policies, including ELD class assignments and reclassification.  The second is to understand how school environment is related to numerous measures of language and academic development.  We will analyze a wide variety of short-term and longer-term outcomes, including high school graduation and college enrollment.  Our analyses will help our partner districts refine district policies to improve outcomes for LTELs and LAELs. Narrowing their achievement gaps will reduce inequality, both among ELs and between ELs and native English speakers.


Project Goals

Our first set of questions involves the implementation of district EL policies: To what extent are long-term and late-arriving EL students assigned to courses prescribed for their specific levels of literacy? Are they reclassified as Fluent English Proficient according to district policy? The second set of questions involves the relation between the educational supports provided to both types of ELs and their academic progress, including many sub-questions related to analysis of newcomer programs, the impact of peers, and especially peers’ native languages spoken, on ELs’ achievement, and the causal impact of being reclassified. The two sets of questions—implementation and outcomes—come together when we examine how fidelity of implementation in the two districts is related to subsequent outcomes for ELs.

We began our study with a longitudinal portrait of the progress of long-term and late-arriving ELs relative to each other and to native speakers. Next, we studied how student progress varied across schools—a topic of direct interest to the two districts—and whether the academic environment can explain these differences. Factors of school environments we study include the extent of implementation of guidelines for English language development course assignments, the presence of newcomer programs, and peer effects. In a later phase of the work, we will also study the districts’ reclassification criteria, and whether they are set appropriately. In other words, are the criteria the districts use for reclassifying ELs reclassifying students at the right stage of their language development, and should the criteria differ for late-arriving and long-term ELs?   


Central Research Questions:

1.  How Are EL Policies Implemented?

a.  To what extent do schools assign LTELs and LAELs to English Language Development (ELD) classes as prescribed by district regulations? How does fidelity of implementation, in terms of ELD class assignments, vary across schools?

b.  To what extent do schools reclassify LTELs and LAELs in accordance with district policy?

c.  What challenges do central office administrators and school leaders/staff encounter in assigning LTELs and LAELs to courses and reclassifying students according to policy? 

2.  How do LAELs and LTELs progress academically relative to each other and to native English speakers?
Does native language proficiency matter?

3.  Do school settings and instructional programs affect the progress of middle and high school ELs? Specifically:

a.  What is the association between peer groups at a school and the academic progress of LTELs and LAELs? Are there enclave effects at schools with large numbers of speakers of the same home language? Does the percentage of EL students at a school matter? Does the percentage of current or former EL students who speak the same home language play a role? How do leaders, counselors, and teachers support LTELs and LAELs in schools with and without linguistic enclaves and/or schools with high or low percentages of ELs?

b.  Is assignment to EL courses specifically designed for LTELs associated with different student outcomes? How do leaders, counselors and teachers support LTELs in EL courses specifically designed for them? Both the SDUSD and LAUSD recently started LTEL classes designed for different levels of English proficiency.

c.  Do LAELs make better academic progress if they are enrolled in newcomer programs or courses at their middle or high school? Does a school’s newcomer program/course also improve LTEL outcomes by creating a separate classroom environment for each group of EL students? How do leaders, counselors and teachers support LAELs in newcomer programs and/or courses?

4.  To what extent can variations in EL students’ performance across schools be explained by the degree to which the schools assign EL students to ELD classes in conformance with district guidelines?

5.  What is the association between reclassification and student outcomes?

a.  Is the association between reclassification and student outcomes similar for all ELs regardless of age of arrival and age at reclassification? That is, do LAELs who are ultimately reclassified and LTELs who start in elementary school but are not reclassified until secondary school have similarly strong positive outcomes?

b.  Does reclassification have a causal effect? That is, do students who are reclassified improve academic outcomes compared with similar ELs who were just below the cut point for reclassification?

c.  What are the appropriate reclassification criteria for LTELs and LAELs?


Project Leadership

This project is a university-district partnership project that brings together staff from UCSD and SDUSD.  The Principal Investigator (PI) of the project is Julian Betts, Professor, Department of Economics at UCSD. Additional staff include Karen Volz Bachofer (Director, SanDERA), Dina Polichar (Research Data Analyst, SanDERA), and Andrew Zau (Senior Statistician, SanDERA). 


Project Timeline

January 1, 2017 through December 31, 2019


Contact Information

For additional information, please contact Julian Betts, Department of Economics, UC San Diego (