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English-language learners are matching, exceeding other CPS students: study

The University of Chicago study followed 18,000 students who entered kindergarten learning English and tracked them through eighth grade.

Second grade students at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the South Side react to a visit from Mayor Lori Lightfoot on the first day back to class after a Chicago Teachers Union strike closed schools for 11 days, Friday morning, Nov. 1, 2019. Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Many students learning English when they arrive at Chicago Public Schools go on to not only match their peers, but surpass them academically, according to a new long-term study released Tuesday that flies in the face of previous research that showed the group far behind.

The study by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research followed the progress of 18,000 such CPS students — referred to as English learners (ELs) — from kindergarten through eighth grade.

The study found that nearly 80 percent of CPS English learners achieved English proficiency by eighth grade, with the majority (76 percent) becoming proficient by fifth grade.

What’s more, English learners who demonstrated English proficiency by eighth grade had higher attendance, math test scores and grades in core courses than their peers who were never classified as English learners. Reading test scores and rates of freshmen on track to graduate were similar.

The results stands in contrast to previous publicly available data that has shown English learners academically far behind their peers, according to the Consortium.

Marisa de la Torre, managing director at the Consortium, stressed the importance of the length of the study versus the snapshots typically examined by previous researchers.

English language “students are making progress, but the growth is not apparent when you’re looking at different groups of students each year,” she said in a written statement.

In 2019, there were almost 68,000 English Learners in CPS, according to the Consortium.

The study, unlike most previous studies, follows the students even after they’re grasp of English allowed them to move beyond the classification of English learner — a benchmark determined by an annual state test.

“I think that the study is showing ELs in Chicago and school personnel who work with them are doing pretty strong,” study co-author Alyssa Blanchard told the Sun-Times. “We want to credit those students and all those professionals who are working with them.”

The proportion of students who are English learners across the country grew 26 percent from 2000 to 2015, according to the study, which cites the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The report demonstrates that the statistics currently used for accountability overlook how well most ELs are performing in school,” according to the Consortium’s news release.

The study also showed that for 20 percent of kids who did not achieve English proficiency by the end of eighth grade, school was more challenging — attendance, grades, and test scores were lower than those of their peers.

Its authors suggest there may be an opportunity to identify these students early on — in kindergarten or first grade — and offer them additional resources.

“They could use more support,” Blanchard said.