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The Obscured Progress of Multilingual Learners

Written by Dr. Michael Kieffer, Associate Professor of Literacy Education

The dramatic move to remote learning caused by the COVID-19 crisis has sparked renewed interest in achievement and opportunities gaps for historically marginalized groups. One such group are multilingual learners—students who speak a language or languages other than English at home. Multilingual learners bring a host of assets to school. However, with widespread segregation and inadequate linguistic support, they face many challenges in achieving academically. Achievement data have tended to highlight these challenges while also obscuring the progress that these learners have made over time. For instance, National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) scores in reading and math have shown large and persistent differences between English learners (multilinguals learners who are still in the process of learning English) and non-English learners. The persistence of these differences is interpreted to suggest that the U.S. educational system has made little progress in meeting English learners’ needs. Another (perhaps unintended) implication is that English learners’ language challenges doom them to academic failure whatever schooling they receive.

However, researchers have recently highlighted how focusing only on the scores of currently classified English learners leads to misleading conclusions about our progress in meeting their needs. In particular, they have shown how the difference between English learners and non-English learners is what researchers Saunders and Marcelletti called “a gap that can’t go away.” By definition, English learners are the subset of multilingual learners who are not yet proficient in listening, speaking, reading, or writing English, and their language skills impact their performance on reading and math tests administered in English. As soon as these students become proficient in English, they move out of the subgroup, and their performance no longer counts. 

Taking a different approach—looking at all multilingual learners—Karen D. Thompson (Oregon State University) and I found a different story. Analyzing NAEP scores in reading and math, we found that multilingual learners made substantial progress between 2003 and 2015. While all students’ scores improved somewhat, multilingual learners’ scores improved two to three times more than monolingual students. We found this improvement in both reading and math and in both Grade 4 and Grade 8. More recently, in a not-yet-published analysis, I extended this approach to investigate whether a similar pattern can be found on international datasets. I used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2000-2018, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2001-2016, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2003-2015. I found that multilingual learners have narrowed achievement differences with monolingual students by approximately 40-60% since the early 2000’s. Results were consistent across math, science, and reading and across Grade 4, Grade 8, and high school. 

These analyses cannot isolate why multilinguals learners are performing much better than they did in the past. Nonetheless, they challenge the widespread notion that multilingual students and their teachers are perpetually failing. In the age of COVID-19, it is unclear whether this success will continue. Multilingual and immigrant learners are facing particular challenges in accessing remote instruction, and schools may struggle to provide the specialized language support that many multilingual students need. There is no doubt that schools will need to do more (now more than ever) to provide equitable education to multilingual students. However, it is also clear from our results that multilingual students demonstrate resilience and assets that are too often ignored.   


Michael Kieffer

Associate Professor of Literacy Education