English learner students who were enrolled in Washington state public high schools between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013 took fewer advanced courses per school year than never-English learner students, according to a new study by REL Northwest—but students who were similarly academically prepared took advanced courses at a similar rate.
These findings apply to current English learner students, as well as those who were reclassified as English proficient within the previous two school years (aka monitored English learner students) and those reclassified as English proficient three or more school years ago (aka former English learner students).
“We found that when students are more equally prepared for advanced courses, the gaps in participation close,” said Havala Hanson, lead author of the study. “Ensuring that English learner students are prepared for and have the option to take advanced courses in high school is critical to addressing disparities and preparing English learners for postsecondary success.”
English learner students face unique obstacles to taking advanced courses, as they divide their time between acquiring English proficiency and learning academic content. In addition, English learner students who move to the United States in middle or high school may have problems transferring credits, which can lead to their retaking courses they already completed in their country of origin.
The ability to take advanced courses often depends on completing prerequisites, especially in math. The study found that current, monitored and former English learner students were 40 to 50 percent less likely to complete algebra I in middle school than never-English learner students—and students who passed algebra I in middle school took more than twice as many math courses beyond algebra II as students who passed algebra I in ninth grade.
The study also found schools that serve many current and former English learner students tended to offer fewer advanced courses compared with schools that serve only a small number of English learner students—even when holding constant characteristics such as size and students’ performance on state assessments.
“Schools aiming to increase participation in advanced courses for English learners could provide advanced course teachers with instructional strategies for working with English learner students and explore having an English as a Second Language or bilingual teacher provide English support in and outside class,” Hanson said. “Additionally, schools may want to review the types of advanced courses they offer and how much success in those courses depends on mastery of academic English.”
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).