Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Saturday, June 6, 2015

Report suggests giving school districts more detailed data on English language learners

Angela FilerAngela Filer

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The report “Analysis of English Language Achievement among Wisconsin English Language Learners” is available online.


More detailed analysis of how English language learners score on proficiency tests could help Wisconsin school districts improve their academic achievement, La Follette School students recommend in a new report.

The report produced for the Workshop in Public Affairs taught by Donald Moynihan analyzes factors influencing English language learner achievement, measured in terms of the time students take to become proficient in English.

The authors focused on how the age at which students start learning English and their initial proficiency affect their academic performance, probability of reaching proficiency in English and how long they would remain in an ELL program. They found that improved initial proficiency correlated to better test scores taken later, increased the probability of becoming proficient and reduced time in an ELL program.

“As starting age increases, students continue to score better on language tests until fifth grade, at which time the effect becomes negative,” says Angela Filer, one of the authors. “However, as starting age increases, the probability of reaching proficiency decreases.”

Filer wrote the report with Christopher Babal, Shiyao Cao, Isaac Hedtke and Keo Lo, all spring graduates of the Master of Public Affairs degree program. “The workshop allowed us to practice our policy skills in a real-world situation,” Filer says. “We employed skills from all of our course work at La Follette, including policy analysis, data analysis and formal policy writing. We used different types of policy writing for each situation, ranging from progress memos to the full analysis to one-page briefs of the key results. In the process, we learned about state agency operations, the range of roles that coworkers can fill in a policy related office and how they all fit together.”

DPI plans to use this report in discussions with stakeholders about their progress in moving ELL students to English proficiency, says DPI research analyst Jared Knowles, who worked with the graduate students, all of whom were in the Master of Public Affairs degree program. “This project is aligned with a long-running initiative at the department to identify better ways to provide data to the ELL practitioners across the state to highlight their work with their students. The report is valuable because it helped DPI staff identify a number of the dilemmas and challenges associated with working with these particular data. Armed with the progress made by this report, DPI staff will be able to more swiftly get useful information into the hands of educators.”

To facilitate a better understanding of ELL students by local administrators, the La Follette School students recommend that their client, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, provide school districts reports that separately analyze student scores in reading, writing, listening and speaking on the Assessing Comprehension and Communication in English State-to-State for English Language Learners.

The authors also recommend that DPI provide reports that analyze test scores by subgroups within a district’s ELL population using percentiles to report scores to facilitate comparisons within a district.

“The report builds on research that shows an achievement gap between English language learners and other students,” Moynihan says. “Current techniques for assessing the progress of these students offer relatively limited insight into how educators might help these students.”