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APPAM Virtual Happy Hour 4/3

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JPAM Featured Article: The Effect of English Language Learner Reclassification

March 8, 2016 09:53 AM

"The Effect of English Language Learner Reclassification on Student ACT Scores, High School Graduation, and Postsecondary Enrollment: Regression Discontinuity Evidence From Wisconsin."

As part of APPAM's ongoing effort to showcase JPAM authors' work to our membership and the public policy world at large, we asked these authors to answer a couple of questions that highlight their research.

By: Deven Carlson and Jared Knowles

What was the genesis/history of the idea for your research?

This research grew out of a broader initiative at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction to analyze the policies and practices surrounding ELL education in the state. As this initiative progressed it became clear that the process of reclassifying ELLs as fully English proficient was an important issue, and that there was relatively little empirical work—particularly in Wisconsin—on the operations or effects of reclassification policy. When we dove deeper into the working of the reclassification process we learned that a student’s performance on Wisconsin’s English language proficiency assessment, which is referred to as the ACCESS exam, plays an outsize role in determining their subsequent ELL classification. In particular, students who score above the proficiency threshold on the ACCESS are automatically reclassified as fully English proficient while students who score below that threshold retain their ELL status. We recognized that this policy rule could serve as the basis of a research design that would allow us to estimate the causal effect of reclassification, and we chose to examine the effects on student’s postsecondary-related outcomes.

What is the main conclusion that becomes evident from your research? (Or, what is our main takeaway?)

The main takeaway from our research is that a student’s ELL status at the beginning of their junior year of high school (i.e. whether they were reclassified as fully English proficient by the end of 10th grade) year is very important from the standpoint of ACT performance and postsecondary enrollment, at least for those students scoring near the proficiency threshold. Students who were classified as fully English proficient scored a full point higher on the ACT than students who remained classified as ELLs, with most of the increase attributable to students’ performance on the English and Reading portions of the ACT. Our results also indicate that reclassification increases postsecondary enrollment the fall after high school graduation, with the increase largely due to increased enrollment at 4-year institutions.

What are some of the more interesting or surprising findings/conclusions, you discovered during this process?

We were surprised at the extent to which a student’s performance on the ACCESS determines their ELL status. Wisconsin policy permits school and district personnel to manually reclassify students who score slightly below the proficiency threshold on the ACCESS as fully English proficient (they are also allowed to manually reclassify students scoring above the proficiency cutoff back in to ELL status), but the data reveal very few manual reclassifications. At the high school level, over 90 percent of students scoring just above the ACCESS proficiency threshold were reclassified as fully English proficiency, but less than 25 percent of students scoring just below the proficiency threshold are reclassified as fully proficient.

What next steps do you envision should be taken because of your findings academically and/or practically?

Academically, we think it is important for these findings to be replicated in other contexts—Wisconsin is not a context in which ELLs are typically studied. We also think it is important to work toward gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms that contributed to the estimated effects. We theorize that the positive effects of reclassification threshold attributable to students being exposed to different college preparation activities and resources than their peers who scored just below the cutoff and remain classified as ELLs, but we have no definitive evidence on the mechanisms that might be at work.

Practically, our results suggest that schools and districts should ensure that students scoring just below the English proficiency threshold have access to the same postsecondary preparation activities and resources as students scoring just above that threshold. Additionally, schools and districts may wish to more closely consider whether to manually reclassify students scoring just below the ACCESS proficiency threshold—currently, less than 25% of students who score just below the cutoff are manually reclassified as fully proficient. We also think that attention should be paid to the design of accountability and funding systems for ELL students during the high school years. States need to consider the tension between needing a certain number of ELL students in a school to sustain programs and the potential benefit of manually reclassifying students just below the proficiency threshold.

Author's Bio

Deven Deven Carlson Bio (Twitter: @devencarlson)
Deven Carlson is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma. His research agenda explores the operations and effects of educational and social policies, including school closures, inter-district open enrollment, charter schools, private school voucher programs, and the Section 8 housing voucher program.




Jared Knowles Bio (Twitter: @jknowles)
Jared Knowles currently serves as a research analyst with the Policy and Budget team at the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. There he has led the design and deployment of the Wisconsin Dropout Early Warning System (DEWS) and has worked on numerous policy analyses for the department. He recently completed his PhD in political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


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