The English Language Learner Achievement Gap

Feb 1, 2017 10:07:22 AM Emily Jensen

The increasing number of English Language Learners (ELL) in U.S. schools and the consistent academic under-performance of this group has led to important questions on identifying strategies to facilitate the learning of ELLs. While the number of ELLs has significantly increased, the achievement gap between Hispanic and Caucasian students has not significantly changed between 1990 and 2007, with the gap widening from 21 to 26 points between grade 4 and grade 8 (National Assessment of Education, 2009). During the 2013-2014 school year, 4.5 million public school students received ELL services, accounting for 9.3% of all public school enrollment. It is imperative to determine the best approaches to structure classrooms and pedagogy to identify strategies that will help educators address the needs of non-Native English speakers.

The complex language learning ecology within classrooms has resulted in environments that are easier for some students to learn a second language, and harder for others. The challenge of learning a second language while simultaneously learning other subjects is depicted in assessment results. For example, in elementary and middle school, ELL students are much less likely than Caucasian students to score at or above the proficiency level. Assessment results in Florida showed 78% of Caucasian third graders scoring at or above the mathematics proficiency level, compared to 45% of the ELL students, resulting in a 34% achievement gap (Fry, 2008). Bilingual education has the potential to change these achievement gaps, with research showing that students who learn in bilingual classrooms consistently outperform students in monolingual classrooms. The level of English needed to understand English classroom instruction is known as “academic English proficiency”, which takes many students four to seven years to develop (NCTL, 2015).

There are classroom management techniques that help increase the learning outcomes among ELL students. The National Center on Time & Learning (NCTL) studied three schools with ELLs representing 25% of the population and that have a record of closing the achievement gap, to identify key strategies to successful ELL education. They found the following practices to be effective in advancing ELL students; structuring classes effectively, integrating relevant and challenging content, allowing students to take reasonability for their own learning and encouraging the students to develop a wide range of competencies and skills (NCTL, 2015).

The increasing numbers of English Language Learners and the consistent achievement gap between this group and native English speakers signifies a necessary shift in pedagogical approaches to increase learning outcomes among ELLs. Shifting the current curriculum paradigm, and the English centered instruction policies that drive most public schools, can include small changes that have proven to help ELL students, including incorporating relevant and challenging content. Additionally, new approaches to professional development, including micro-credentialing, can help teachers facilitate these learning environments.