Study Highlights Need to Focus on Academic Preparation of Spanish-Speaking Students to Address Gaps in Advanced Coursetaking

January 2017

A new study by Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest found Spanish-speaking students—the largest group of language minority students in Washington state—take fewer advanced courses and earn lower grades in those courses than other language minority students and English-only speakers, regardless of whether they are classified as English learners. Differences in advanced course enrollment and performance disappear when students have the same grade point average and test scores in the prior school year.

"If schools and districts are successful in helping students master English and content in the earlier grades, we would expect to see advanced course enrollment increase and disparities diminish, especially among English learners whose primary language is Spanish," said Havala Hanson, lead author of the study.

The study also found that Spanish-speaking students attend schools that offer fewer advanced courses than other schools do, even after average student characteristics within schools are taken into account, including students’ state standardized test scores in math and reading.

The study authors suggest schools may benefit from monitoring the academic progress of students who speak different primary or home languages to identify groups that struggle more than others. Understanding the challenges particular students (such as Spanish-speaking students) face could help inform decisions about where to invest efforts to improve student achievement.

"These findings reinforce the understanding that language minority students are not a homogeneous group and underline the importance of not applying a 'one size fits all' approach to educating English learner students,” said Hanson.

The study was completed at the request of and in collaboration with the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In this study, advanced courses included Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, honors-level, Cambridge Program and dual-enrollment courses, as well as courses that exceeded graduation requirements in math, science and world languages (such as multivariate calculus and inorganic chemistry).

The report complements the findings of a recent Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest study that showed that current and former English learner students in Washington state took fewer advanced courses and had fewer advanced courses offered at their schools than did students who had never been English learner students.