Data dive

How well are English Language Learners doing in NYC schools? That depends on the stats you consider

PHOTO: Madeleine Cummings

When New York state released its latest round of high school graduation rates, the news was mostly good — but one troubling statistic stood out.

While graduation rates for all students continued a historic climb, English Language Learners experienced a dramatic drop in both New York City and the state.

The city was quick to defend itself, saying its graduation rate was flat if you consider the number of students who were classified as English learners the year they graduated along with those who learned the language well enough to test out.

Now, a timely new study lends support to the city’s stance.

Published by the Institute of Education Sciences, the report suggests that tracking the graduation outcomes of former English learners, as well as those who take slightly longer to earn diplomas, offers a clearer picture of how this vulnerable population is faring in school.

“We’ve had data on English learners, but it hasn’t always been interpreted carefully and it hasn’t always been used in a way that’s useful to schools,” said Michael Kieffer, an associate professor at New York University and lead author of the report. “We’re starting to have a conversation … about how are we going to use data better to serve English learners better?”

The report was based on New York City student data, and was released this week by an independent research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The researchers looked at graduation outcomes among New York City fifth- and sixth-grade students who entered school as English learners in the 2003-04 academic year.

It found 64 percent of students who were ever considered English learners earned diplomas, “higher than might be assumed,” according to the study.

Counting both groups of students only makes sense, said Caroline E. Parker, co-author of the report and principal research scientist at the nonprofit Education Development Center.

“You get a better sense of how English learners are doing across a whole system in K-12,” she said, adding that students who test out “have been served by the English learner programs and are successful.”

It’s also important to consider how many students graduate within five and six years, the study states. Learning a new language is hard enough, but learning high-level academic content in another language is even tougher. The researchers found that 15 percent of English learners didn’t graduate on time, but did earn a diploma within six years — bringing the graduation rate to about 79 percent. That is virtually on par with the six-year rate for native speakers.

The findings are particularly relevant now, as the latest round of state and city graduation data were released earlier this month. According to the state, 72.6 percent of all New York City students graduated. But for students who are still learning English, the graduation rate was 27 percent — a 9.6 point drop from the previous year.

That figure only includes students who were classified as English Language Learners during their last year of school, but still managed to graduate in four years — an important metric to help judge whether schools are serving recent immigrants well, Kieffer said.

However, if the graduation rate is adjusted to include both current English learners and those who learned the language well enough to test out of the program, it rises to about 51 percent.

Given the findings, schools might want to think about creating different pathways to graduation, according to the study, and city and state governments may want to consider using longer-term graduation rates within accountability systems under a new federal education law called the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“The group of English learners is very complex,” Parker said. “One thing this research tries to do is unpack what does that group look like … and is it possible to create policies that account for that diversity of students and allow them to be successful?”

The city, which has been under state scrutiny for lagging in providing services for English learners, is working on ways to improve instruction. This week, officials announced the opening of 68 more bilingual programs. More than 12 percent of the city’s 1.1 million students are considered English learners.

“We are committed to ensuring all ELLs have the supports they need to succeed,” Yuridia Peña, a department spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “We’re encouraged by the improvements they’ve made.”

second chance

An embattled Harlem charter school that serves kids with disabilities will be allowed to keep its middle school — for now

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Opportunity Charter School

A Harlem charter school will be allowed to keep its middle school next school year, despite the fact that top city education officials have repeatedly ruled that it is too low performing to stay open.

That decision offers at least temporary relief for Opportunity Charter School, which has been embroiled in a dispute with the education department since March. The disagreement centers on whether city officials properly took into account the school’s students — over half of whom have a disability — when it judged the school’s performance.

The city’s education department, which oversees the school as its charter authorizer, tried to close the middle school and offered only a short-term renewal for the high school when the school’s charter came up for review earlier this year. The school appealed that decision, and was denied late last month.

But the education department is backing down from its position — at least for now. That reversal appears to be based mostly on logistics: A Manhattan Supreme Court judge has temporarily blocked the closure through at least mid-July in response to a lawsuit filed by the school and some of its parents last month, complicating the process of finding students new schools outside the normal admissions cycle.

“Students always come first, and given where we are in the school year, we will allow the middle school grades to remain open in 2017-18,” education department spokesman Michael Aciman wrote in an email on Thursday. Still, he noted, the department will continue to push to close the middle school in the future.

Kevin Quinn, a lawyer representing Opportunity Charter, said the city’s decision was the only responsible one, given that the school has already held its admissions lottery and made offers to parents.

“This is a wise decision by the [education department],” Quinn wrote in an email, “and [we] appreciate their acknowledgment that placement of this population at this time would be significantly disruptive.”

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”