Nearly 30% of Los Angeles Unified School District students placed in English language learning classes in early primary grades were still in the program when they started high school, increasing their chances of dropping out, according to a new study released Wednesday.
More than half of those students were born in the United States and three-quarters had been in the school district since first grade, according to the report by the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC.
The findings raise questions about the teaching in the district's English language classes, whether students are staying in the program too long and what more educators should do for students who start school unable to speak English fluently.
"If you start LAUSD at kindergarten and are still in ELL classes at ninth grade, that's too long," said Wendy Chavira, assistant director of the policy institute. "There is something wrong with the curriculum if there are still a very large number of students being stuck in the system."
Researchers tracked the data on 28,700 students from the time they started sixth grade in 1999 until graduation in 2005. They found that students who were moved to mainstream classes by the time they were in eighth grade were more likely than students who remained in English language classes to stay in school, take advanced placement courses in high school and pass the high school exit exam.
Mary Campbell, who is in charge of English language learning programs at L.A. Unified, said students must learn English as well as the grade-level material to move into mainstream classes. That often takes longer than learning the language, she said.
"We are aggressively looking at supporting these longtime English learners to ensure that they get the support needed to reclassify in a timely manner," she said.
The vast majority of the students in the segregated language classes are not recent immigrants but rather U.S.-born youths, according to the study. Nearly 70% of all students ever placed in the English language learning program were born in the United States.
Previous studies have shown that English language learners generally score lower on standardized tests than their English-only classmates. Other studies have shown that students in English language classes are usually placed with less experienced teachers, focus on language skills rather than content and are segregated from students who speak English.
"The United States has never learned what is the best way to teach English to English learners," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. "That's really a shortcoming."
The sooner students switch to regular classes the better, the new study showed. Students who moved out of English classes by third grade scored up to 40 points higher on standardized tests than those who stayed in the classes. If the students moved by fifth grade, they scored about 10 points higher than their peers.
And in some cases, students who were in English learning programs and then moved out performed better than students in English-only classes.
All students who speak a second language at home must take a test to see whether they should be placed into classes for English learners. Once they are enrolled, they must take another test to get out. But Pachon said the process to get in is easier than it is to get out.
Though the study didn't determine why students were staying in English language programs for so long, researchers say schools may avoid moving English learners into mainstream classes to keep test scores high.