Panel Paper: An Extra Year to Learn English? Early Grade Retention and the Human Capital Development of English Learners

Thursday, November 8, 2018
Truman - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

David Figlio, Northwestern University and Umut Ozek, American Institutes for Research

The United States is in the midst of the second largest wave of immigration in its history. The last thirty years have averaged more than one million documented immigrants per year, changing the demographic composition nationwide. A number of studies have examined the extent to which the educational and economic outcomes of these recent immigrants converge to those of natives across generations.An overarching conclusion of this extant literature is that attaining English proficiency early in life, especially before middle school when students are exposed to more challenging course content, is a major predictor of future success for immigrants. As such, reducing the time to English proficiency for English learners (EL) is a top education policy priority.

In this project, we intend to examine whether early grade retention is an effective policy lever to reduce the time to proficiency among ELs and improve their human capital accumulation in middle and high school. In particular, we will investigate the causal effects of Florida’s early grade retention policy, which requires students who fail to score above the lowest achievement level on the 3rd grade reading test to be retained, on time to proficiency (as indicated by reclassification out of EL status) and human capital accumulation as proxied by advanced course-taking and test scores in middle and high school using regression discontinuity (RD) design.

Test-based grade retention policies have become increasingly popular in the United States over the last two decades, with 16 states and the District of Columbia currently requiring the retention of third-grade students who do not meet grade-level expectations in reading. The promise of early grade retention policies for ELs is that they provide additional time for these students to acquire the necessary English skills before they are exposed to more challenging course content. Further, Florida’s 3rd grade retention policy might be particularly beneficial for ELs to attain proficiency earlier as it provides substantial instructional support for retained students including at least 90 minutes of reading instruction each day using effective instruction strategies and high-performing teachers.

To the best of our knowledge, there is no study to date that examines the causal effects of early grade retention on ELs using an RD design. There are several reasons that might explain the lack of research in this context. For instance, one of the major concerns in RD design is power, yet Florida’s large EL population and the long history of the grade retention policy (which enables us to utilize several cohorts of third graders in our analysis) provides us sufficient power for our analysis. Further, the long history of the test-based grade retention in Florida allows us to follow these cohorts through middle and high school, observing their exit from the EL designation as well as their course-taking behavior. Florida’s diverse public student body also allows us to examine heterogeneous treatment effects along nativity (foreign born ELs versus native born), language spoken at home (Spanish versus others), and other proxies of latent human capital.