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Early English Language Learners Excel Academically, Study Finds

Three students work together on their assignment, Jan. 19, 2010.

Credit: Tulane Public Relations via Compfight

Above: Three students work together on their assignment, Jan. 19, 2010.

Students who learn English as a second language by fifth grade are among the top performers throughout their academic career.

The study shows students who are classified "English proficient" by fifth grade do as well as or better than native English speakers.

That is the conclusion of a study released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California. The authors of the study looked at how well English language learners do in school until 12th grade.

UC San Diego economics professor Julian Betts was a co-author of the report. The researchers looked at the San Diego Unified School District and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“The major finding from our study is that English learners who were classified as fluent in English by the end of fifth grade performed as well or even better than native English speakers in these two districts,” Betts said.

The study was motivated by concern that English language learners might fall behind academically once they have been reclassified as “English proficient” rather than “English learners.”

“They continue to do well throughout middle school and high school, and so there’s no sense at all from our study that students are being reclassified too early and start to falter,” Betts said.

However, there was a drop off in academic ability among students who were reclassified after fifth grade.

Betts also said the findings show the need for standardized statewide guidelines for English proficiency tests. Currently each district has the final say over when it considers students proficient in English.

About a quarter of California’s 6 million kindergarten through 12th grade students are classified as English language learners. The researchers chose San Diego and Los Angeles because together they make a large representative sample — 15 percent — of all English language learners in the state.

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