Reclassifying English Language Learners: What’s the effect on Wisconsin high schoolers?

Those watching election results recently know voter demographics, and how they’ve changed over time, play a major role during primary campaign season. These national demographic trends not only influence presidential campaigns but also affect schools across the country. Today 10 percent of all students attending public schools in the US are classified as English Language Learners (ELLs)—the number of students with this classification has increased by 14 percent over the past decade. A priority for all public schools with ELL students is to help them achieve proficiency in English, commonly known as “exiting” ELL status or “reclassifying.”  In research forthcoming in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management we use data from Wisconsin to examine how reclassifying an ELL student as fully English proficient during his or her high school years affects important subsequent outcomes.

ELL students are a heterogeneous population, varying from young children of immigrants born in the US to refugees arriving in the country during their adolescence. The policies and practices surrounding the education of ELLs are likewise wide-ranging and diverse. Within broad federal requirements laid out in Title III of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are given substantial latitude in determining the process and criteria for reclassifying ELLs.

As in many other states, reclassification decisions in Wisconsin rely heavily on students’ performance on the state’s English proficiency assessment—the Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State (ACCESS) exam. Students scoring above the proficiency threshold on the ACCESS exam are automatically reclassified as fully English proficient. District personnel can also manually reclassify students scoring just below the proficiency threshold as fully English proficient, but evidence suggests that manual reclassifications are relatively rare in Wisconsin.

The impact of reclassification as a fully English proficient student

Reclassifying a student as fully English proficient changes several aspects of students’ educational environment. At the high school level, reclassification has the potential to put students on an educational track that has access to resources that better prepare them for postsecondary education. On the other hand, exiting ELL status often eliminates access to instructional accommodations and supports tailored to promote these students’ success.

In our research we examine this by estimating the effect of reclassification that occurs prior to a student’s 11th grade year on his or her ACT scores, likelihood of high school graduation, and postsecondary enrollment. We focus on reclassification occurring prior to 11th grade because junior year is typically when postsecondary preparation begins in earnest—students generally take the ACT in 11th grade and high schools typically first offer postsecondary counseling at this time. The postsecondary preparation experiences of students classified as ELLs may differ significantly from those of students who have been reclassified as fully English proficient.

We estimate the effect of reclassification by taking advantage of Wisconsin’s policy that automatically reclassifies students who score above the proficiency threshold on the ACCESS exam. In particular, we compare the outcomes of students who score just above the proficiency threshold—most of whom are reclassified as fully proficient—to the outcomes of their peers who fall just short and are likely to remain classified as ELLs in 11th grade.  This design allows us to make causal claims about the impact of being reclassified by the beginning of 11th grade for those students who scored near the proficiency threshold on the ACCESS.

For these students, we find that reclassification increases students’ composite ACT score by about one full point. Most of this increase is attributable to improved performance on the English and reading portions of the ACT. Our results also indicate that reclassification increases postsecondary enrollment in the fall after high school graduation, with the increase largely due to increased enrollment at four-year institutions.

We theorize that the positive effects of scoring above the automatic reclassification threshold are 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—ACT preparation, college counseling, and assistance with the application or financial aid process are potential examples. Although our research provides indirect evidence in support of this explanation, we acknowledge that we do not know the mechanisms responsible for producing the effects we find. For example, it could be the case that reclassification serves as a motivator for students and give them a positive view of the schooling environment. We hope additional research will provide further insight into the mechanisms through which reclassification during a students’ high school years affects the outcomes we study.

Policy implications for governing the education of ELLs

Our results have important implications for policy governing the education of ELLs. At a basic level, our results indicate the importance of a student’s ELL classification at the beginning of his or her junior year, at least for Wisconsin students scoring near the English proficiency threshold on the ACCESS exam. This suggests 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 the cutoff. 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 percent of students who score just below the cutoff are manually reclassified as fully proficient. However, under current policy, schools that aggressively reclassify students will find that the decreased ELL enrollment size results in reduced funding for their ELL program.

More generally, our research suggests policymakers face a complex set of considerations when designing the accountability systems for ELL student performance that are required by ESSA. Indeed, these systems should strive to encourage both achievement of English proficiency and mastery of academic content while ensuring that students’ options in other domains, such as postsecondary education or extracurricular activities, remain unaffected by the incentives that schools and districts face with respect to reclassification. And all of this must be done while incorporating the uniformity in identification, entrance, and exit procedures for ELL classification that ESSA requires.

Our research does not point to a single resolution to this challenge, particularly given the substantial variation in both the ELL population and in the design and quality of programs that serve these students. However, it does point to the fact that getting the design of these systems right is incredibly important. Doing so has the potential to improve the outcomes of a large (and ever-growing) number of students.