Researchers from the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research found that the district’s Freshman On-Track Indicator is a valid predictor of graduation rates for English language learners.

The report, released today, is the first to evaluate whether tallying course failures and grades can predict graduation rates for ELLs, both Latino and non-Latinos. It’s significant because ELLs now make up almost one-third of CPS enrollment.

Previous research on the Freshman On-Track Indicator was for native English-speaking students.

Researchers also found that learning English is critical. Even among Latino students who were on-track as freshmen, those who didn’t master English by the time they got to high school were less likely to graduate.  That finding was true for both new ELLs and those who had been in CPS since elementary school.

Students who were proficient in English before 6th grade had the best freshman year course performance and graduation rates of any Latinos, followed by those who were never in bilingual education and by students who become proficient in English between 6th and 8th grade.

Those least likely to graduate were Latino students who are “long-term English language learners,” in bilingual education since the early grades. These students had the worst performance in courses and poor attendance, an issue reported on in the Winter 2012 issue of Catalyst In Depth.

The report followed students from their freshman year in 2004 through 2009.

Navigating school choice

Julia Gwynne, senior research analyst for the Consortium, says the most surprising finding was that “new English language learners, at least among Hispanic students, did as well in their classes as any other groups we looked at,” due to their strong study habits and good attendance.

But even those students who were on track to graduate, though they had a better chance of graduating than those who were not, ended up with much lower graduation rates than expected, given their strong start. Those students often started high school at older ages than their peers, expected to leave school at an earlier age, and were stuck in academically weak schools.

Many long-term Latino ELLS also end up in low-achieving high schools, hurting their chance at graduation. A disproportionate number of these students are young men in special education.

“It appears that some students are better at navigating the system of high school choice than others,” Gwynne says. “New English language learners most likely wouldn’t have been there in 7th grade, and long-term English language learners most likely wouldn’t have qualified [for selective-enrollment schools].”

These groups of students also are less likely to attend good neighborhood high schools, Gwynne says, which means they may benefit if middle school counselors provided extra help.

“Particularly for students who haven’t been in CPS for a long time, haven’t been in this country for a long time, haven’t been proficient in English – counselors can play a role in helping them navigate a system that may not be familiar,” she notes.

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