August 11, 2017

Flores: Segregation, not language background, likely explains proficiency gap for Spanish-speaking English learners

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Earlier this year, a study by the Philadelphia Education Research Consortium found that English learners from Spanish-speaking homes in Philadelphia public schools were less likely to be English proficient after third grade than their peers from homes where other languages, such as Chinese or Arabic, were spoken.

This raised many questions about the students, the test used to assess proficiency, and schools themselves, as detailed in a story by WHYY’s Newsworks.

 Reporter Avi Wolfman-Arent looked a series of factors that could contribute to this proficiency gap, including family income, family background, and how likely students might be to speak a language other than English away from school.

Penn GSE educational linguist Nelson Flores told Newsworks that racial and economic segregation can’t be ignored.

Dr. Nelson Flores

Students from Spanish-speaking homes are likely as capable of speaking English as their peers, Penn GSE educational linguist Nelson Flores told Newsworks. But, since they are more likely to live in higher-poverty neighborhoods and attend lower-performing schools, they are also less likely to excel on the proficiency tests.

"We're not talking about the ability to communicate in English," Flores told Newsworks. "We're talking about the ability to do grade-level content in English."

To put it simply, many students in schools that have a significant number of Spanish-speaking English Learners have many students who are not reading and writing at grade level, no matter what language is spoken at home, Flores said. If Philadelphia wants to improve English proficiency scores, it has to look beyond language lessons.