The familiar tale about English language learners emphasizes failure: they lag behind other students, drop out at higher rates, and are less likely to pass standardized exams.
But there is a lesser-known flip side to that story, one that advocates are working harder to promote: Former English learners — students who were once ELs, and shed that status when they mastered English — often emerge as high achievers, matching or surpassing their peers’ performance in school and on standardized tests, including the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS.
Researchers haven’t pinpointed the reasons for the higher scores of former English learners on some standardized exams, and they say answers may prove elusive, because test-taking is such a complex task. But a robust body of scientific data has established some brain benefits of bilinguality: Those who regularly use more than one language increase the density of cells that process information, and strengthen their brains’ executive control network, used in cognitive tasks requiring focused attention.
Anyone who tracks valedictorians in urban high schools has likely wondered about the performance-boosting power of a second language, given how many top-ranked graduates are immigrants and current or former English learners. Among the 34 valedictorians in Boston Public Schools this spring, 16 are former English learners — 47 percent — though just 13 percent of all students districtwide are former ELs, according to BPS. (The current crop of valedictorians also includes three current English learners.)
At a moment when the urgent unmet needs of many of Boston’s English learners are front and center again, with the Boston Public Schools trying to avoid a state takeover with plans to address longstanding failures, advocates for English learners nationwide say it is time for a more nuanced conversation, one that balances concern for at-risk students with more acknowledgment of their potential.
“A lot of the data only tells half the story,” said Leslie Villegas, a senior policy analyst at New America, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C. “The ‘English learner’ label is supposed to help students get services they need; it’s not meant to be a deficit-centered way of defining who they are. They won’t always be ELs — they’re going to be bilingual.”
The promise shown by bilingual students underscores the gravity of teaching English learners well — and the potential payoff if schools excel at the task.
Among all Massachusetts students who took the MCAS exam as 10th-graders in 2019, former English learners — defined as those who exited EL status within the past four years — passed the English Language Arts portion of the test at a higher rate than any other group of students, with 98 percent scoring high enough to fulfill the graduation requirement. Comparable rates were 95 percent for all students, 97 percent for white students, 85 percent for students with disabilities, and 68 percent for English learners, according to state data. When math and English results were combined, 92 percent of the former English learners passed both, compared with 89 percent of all students.
Gigi Luk, a McGill University researcher specializing in bilingualism, found a similar trend when she analyzed MCAS data from 2013-14 and 2015-16 in her previous role at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, finding that former English learners outscored other students in grades 3-5.
Scientific study has not yet deeply probed the reasons, she said. But the outcomes show the long-term value of investing in English learners.
“English proficiency is a stepping stone to academic success,” Luk said. “To get ELs the support they need is the first step to having everyone succeed.”
The same trend appeared when another researcher examined high school graduation rates in Oregon. Karen Thompson, a professor at Oregon State University, found a slightly higher four-year graduation rate for former English learners than for other students in 2017: 80 percent, compared with 77 percent of those who had never been ELs. The margin was similar last year: 84 versus 81 percent.
Thompson said she has pushed the state to generate more data specific to former English learners, to flesh out what has long been a fragmented and incomplete picture of their academic trajectory.
In Massachusetts, it can also be a challenge to stitch together the struggles of early English learners with their later mastery, to fully understand their progress and potential.
Low scores of English learners, as they strive to acquire a new language, have been a focus of attention and concern. Just 40 percent of current English learners in the class of 2019 and 44 percent in the class of 2020 passed all three required segments of the state MCAS exam, in math, science, and English, when they took it as 10th-graders.
But some say more attention should be paid to the timing of the exams, and when students learning English can reasonably be subjected to high-stakes testing.
The state’s heavy focus on first-time, sophomore-year passage rates obscures the bigger picture. By the time 10th-grade English learners immerse themselves in their new language for two more years, and reach the end of 12th grade, roughly twice as many are able to pass the exam: 85 percent in the class of 2019 and 82 percent in the class of 2020, according to state data. (Students have five chances to take and pass the MCAS, and can also appeal the requirement.)
Many advocates for English learners have criticized the use of the MCAS for their assessment, for reasons that are obvious but sometimes overlooked: It is administered in a language they don’t speak.
“The idea of measuring English learner outcomes using MCAS is ludicrous,” said Rosann Tung, a Boston-based researcher who has long studied the needs of students learning English. “They haven’t yet learned enough English to pick up the content they need, taught in English, or to decipher a test given in a language they’re still learning.”
An emphasis on test scores, for students still learning English, perpetuates a “narrative of failure” that can color their self-image, she said. And when students lose hope of success — or see no path to graduation — they are at higher risk of dropping out, said experts.
“English learners are not failures,” said Tung. “Bilingualism is good for the brain, and we should value linguistic diversity.”
Kelin Funes, a senior at Boston International High School, remembers her first time facing the MCAS. A newcomer from El Salvador who did not know English, she felt anxious and confused as she scanned through the blur of words she didn’t know yet, “trying to connect the few words I did know.”
Within two years of her arrival in 2019, however, Funes had mastered English, powering through five levels of English learner status to land in AP and honors classes. Headed to UMass Lowell in the fall to pursue a career in biotechnology research, she said she has only recently discussed her early MCAS experience with friends, and reflected on “how unfair it is, to expect English learners to have the language they need to answer those questions.”
State education leaders have recently proposed raising the minimum MCAS scores required for graduation, reviving longstanding concerns among some experts and advocates about the risks for disadvantaged students including English learners.
“It’s admirable to have high standards,” said John Mudd, a longtime member of the Boston School Committee’s English Language Learners Task Force. “But high goals, without genuine help to reach them, is hypocritical, and damaging.”
By many accounts, the pandemic took a heavier toll on English learners, as closures cost immigrant families jobs and income and forced teenagers to work longer hours. School districts struggled to connect with them, while they struggled to learn a new language online. School disruptions meant fewer English learners were tested to determine their proficiency; as a result, fewer have been placed in classes matching their specific needs.
Louis Kruger, an emeritus professor of psychology at Northeastern University who has analyzed recent MCAS data for English learners, said the state has not done enough to track their outcomes, and should hold off on tightening MCAS requirements before the true cost of the last two years is clear.
“How many have left school?” Kruger said. “We don’t know.”
For those who do persist, there are plenty of hopeful examples, among them Teame Araya, this year’s valedictorian at Boston International High School. He arrived in this country in December 2018 knowing only a few English phrases, but he was highly motivated to learn: a refugee from Eritrea, in eastern Africa, who came to the United States without his family, he knew no one here who spoke his native language, Tigrinya.
“Because I had to learn English to communicate, I was very ambitious, working very hard,” said Araya, 21, who will attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a scholarship and plans to become a doctor.
He believes the persistence he first practiced to learn a new language became ingrained in his approach to school.
“You get used to putting in the extra effort, compared to other people, and it becomes a habit,” he said.