Rethinking the ELL Achievement Gap: Starting with Mindsets

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During my first week as a third-grade teacher in the Rio Grande Valley, I was immediately confronted by the English language learner (ELL) achievement gap. Results from a diagnostic reading assessment I administered showed that not a single one of my students was reading on grade level and four of my students were actually reading below a first-grade level. One of my students did not know how to write his first name.

I wish that this story was less common, but what I witnessed mirrors the experiences of teachers in schools across the country, particularly as the ELL population grows and expands to new destinations that are outside traditional immigrant gateways. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal a large and persistent gap between ELL and non-ELL students in the percent scoring at or above basic proficiency on reading and math assessments (OELA, 2008). ELLs also have lower grade-point averages, higher dropout rates, and reduced postsecondary aspirations (Portes & Rumbaut, 2001; Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco & Todorova, 2008). It is evident that ELLs are a unique group of students who are faced with a number of challenges that have historically impeded them from meeting academic achievement standards in American schools.

It is important to note that the ELL achievement gap is exceptionally complex. Unlike other subgroups that are specified in NCLB (e.g., racial groups, economically disadvantaged, students with disabilities), a key goal for ELL students is to transition out of ELL status by demonstrating English proficiencyAs a result, the ELL subgroup is unstable over time as students acquire English proficiency and exit ELL status (Saunders & Marcelletti, 2013). Many states, including Michigan, require ELLs to meet academic achievement criteria in order to exit ELL status and be reclassified. Consequently, higher-achieving ELLs tend to exit more rapidly, while lower achieving ELLs remain a part of the subgroup. As a result, the ELL achievement gap appears to be exacerbated in middle and high school because, as time passes, the group becomes increasingly concentrated with students who struggle to meet proficiency requirements in content area tests in reading and writing. Because of this, a recent research article referred to the ELL achievement gap as “the gap that can’t go away” (Saunders & Marcelletti, 2013).

That said, while it may be virtually impossible to close the ELL achievement gap because of the way the ELL subgroup is constructed, I believe strongly that that this gap can be mitigated. My experiences as a teacher and researcher have led me to believe that the place to start is by adopting a growth mindset when it comes to how we approach our ELL students. Psychologist Carol Dweck explains that with a growth mindset people believe that with dedication and hard work they can improve their abilities, whereas with a fixed mindset people believe that the talents and skills they are born with are fixed and cannot be developed further.

Consider this example:

I was baffled by the fact that Manuel, one of my third-grade students in Texas, was unable to even write his name on the beginning-of-the-year diagnostic reading assessment. What I had come to know about Manuel within the first week of school was that he had excellent speaking and listening skills in both English and Spanish, but it was evident that his reading and writing skills were minimal in both languages. I also came to find out that he was an excellent artist—his drawings were detailed and imaginative and reflected that he had exceptionally advanced artistic skills.

I decided to go thumb through Manuel’s permanent record to see if I could gather some more information about why he was so far behind. It turns out he had recently returned to Texas after attending first and second grade in Kentucky. His most recent report card from his previous school was included in his folder and he had earned As and Bs in all subject areas. The written comments from his teachers indicated that he was a good student with excellent behavior. Questions started racing through my head: Why did Manuel’s grades make it seem like he was progressing adequately?  Had Manuel ever been tested to see if he had special needs?

I decided to have a conversation with Manuel to see if I could get a bit more information from him. By talking with him, I came to find out that Manuel’s family had moved to Kentucky so that his parents could work in a factory. There were very few students in his school who spoke a language other than English. His daily classroom routine consisted of sitting in the back of the classroom at a desk in the corner with a box of crayons and an unlimited supply of paper. His teacher had simply asked him to sit quietly and draw pictures. So that is what Manuel did.

I have no idea why Manuel’s teacher in Kentucky did what she did. Perhaps it was because she did not have any training in working with ELLs and was intimidated by Manuel’s lack of English proficiency. Or maybe she did not believe he deserved the same education as the English-proficient students in her classroom. Whatever her reasoning, the message she sent to Manuel was that he was not expected to achieve at the same level as the rest of the students in the classroom. In essence, his teacher’s approach conveyed a fixed mindset about his potential as a student.

While Manuel’s situation may seem extreme, I believe that it is often the case that as educators we at times convey a fixed mindset to our students unintentionally. We can ensure that we are approaching our ELL students with a growth mindset by doing the following things:

  1. Reexamine the ELL Classification
  2. Influence “Malleable Factors”

Reexamine the ELL Classification

Take a minute and identify three or four different ELL students with whom you have interacted. Think about the following for each student:

  • What is this student’s native language?
  • Was this child born in the United States? If not, at what age did he/she come to the U.S.?  What country did he/she come from?
  • How many years has this child been classified as an ELL?
  • What is this student’s proficiency level in English in the four language domains of listening, speaking, reading and writing?

What you probably realized as you thought through these questions is that ELLs are an extremely diverse group of students!  However, the ELL classification does not capture this diversity. Really, the ELL classification is deceptively simple—students are either classified as an ELL or not. This makes it makes it difficult for teachers to understand the varying instructional needs of their ELL students, so it is challenging for teachers to meet students where they are and help them grow. In addition, the ELL classification conveys a fixed mindset to teachers andstudents because it does not capture the growth students are making.

To cultivate a growth mindset, we need to go beyond the simple ELL classification. We can do so by layering systematic information onto the ELL classification, distributing this information to all classroom teachers (not just the ESL teacher!), aligning services with students’ specific needs, and recognize growth in ELL students so that the ELL classification does not seems so stagnant. In an effort to help educators with reframing the ELL classification, my graduate assistant, Jennifer Paul, and I have worked to develop the ELL Growth Plan , a tool that Michigan educators can use to monitor ELL growth over time in both academic achievement and English proficiency as well as to target areas where ELL students may have stalled in their learning. This resource is provided to you along with a mock-up of a completed ELL Growth Plan here.

Influence “Malleable Factors”

Malleable factors are “factors that can be changed by the education system such as children’s behaviors and skills, teachers’ practices, education programs and their components, school or district management practices, or education policies” (Institute of Education Sciences, 2013). For example, curriculum is a malleable factor—we can make the decision to adopt a new curriculum. On the other hand, a student’s status as economically disadvantaged is not something that we can directly change as educators.

There are a number of barriers to ELLs that have been identified by researchers. ELLs tend to experience:

  • Less exposure to academic content (Gándara et al., 2003)
  • Reduced academic rigor (Callahan, 2005; Ream, 2005)
  • Stratified course placement (Hallinan, 1994; Katz, 1999; Valdés, 1996)
  • Isolation/segregation (Stanton-Salazar, 1997)
  • Difficulty utilizing key institutional supports such as libraries, guidance counselors, etc. (Stanton-Salazar  & Dornbush, 1995)
  • A lack of access to meaningful social networks with English-speaking peers and role models that can help build bridging social capital (Stanton-Salazar, 1997; Stanton-Salazar & Dornbush, 1995)

These barriers are all malleable factors that we, as educators, can work to improve. It is up to us to figure out if (and why) these barriers exist for our students and to strategically remove the barriers. At times we can look at the data that MDE provides to help answer these questions, but it is often the case that we have to conduct our own research within our district or our school to address these barriers. In an effort to facilitate this process, I have developed the Be a Data Collector tool, a resource that will help educators walk through the process of asking challenging questions, collecting data and developing a plan to address the needs of their ELL students.

In our next article, Jennifer Paul and I will be discussing the process of identifying ELLs. We are looking forward to sharing more information about ELLs with Michigan educators in coming months!  Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions or comments on this article or any of the resources I have provided.

Until the next issue,
Madeline Mavrogordato


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Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Random House.

Gándara, P., Rumberger, R., Maxwell-Jolly, J., & Callahan, R. (2003). English learners in California schools: Unequal resources, unequal outcomes. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 11(36), 1-52.

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No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-110, § 115 (2002).

Office of English Language Acquisition, Language Enhancement, and Academic Achievement for Limited English Proficient Students. (2008). The Biennial Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Title III State Formula Grant Program, School Years 2004-06. Washington, D.C.

Portes, A., & Rumbaut, R. G. (2001). Ethnicities: Children of immigrants in America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Ream, R. K. (2005). Uprooting children: Mobility, social capital, and Mexican American under achievement. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing.

Saunders, W.M. & Marcelletti, D.J. (2013) The gap that can’t go away: The catch-22 of reclassification in monitoring the progress of English learners. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(2), 139-156.

Suárez-Orozco, C., Suarez-Orozco, M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning in a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Valdés, G. (1996). Con respeto: Bridging the distances between culturally diverse families and schools: An ethnographic portrait. New York: Teachers College Press.