Study #1
Coursetaking for Secondary English Learners

Co-Principal Investigators: Li Cai, Karen Thompson, and Ilana Umansky  |  Co-Investigator: Edynn Sato

Prior research clearly establishes a strong relationship between coursetaking and high school and postsecondary success. While the literature on disparities in English Learners’ coursetaking and academic achievement is more limited, existing research findings indicate that English Learners face barriers to equitable course access in middle and high school and that these barriers negatively influence their schooling outcomes. Specifically, secondary English Learners tend to be placed in low-track and/or segregated classes and, at times, experience outright exclusion from content-area classes.

We will analyze student-level, statewide data from four states across the US to identify secondary English Learners’ access to courses, how that access is related to their long-term educational outcomes, and how malleable factors at the school level can increase secondary English Learners’ course access and achievement.

The research questions for the coursetaking study are:

  1. To what extent do English Learners have access to core content courses from grades 8–12?

    • How does content course access vary by academic content area and student subgroups?

    • What is the impact of reclassification as English proficient on course access?

  2. What malleable factors are associated with English Learners’ core content access and achievement? (See Table 1 for a list of the malleable factors we will examine.)

  3. How are English Learners’ course access and patterns related to academic outcomes, including test scores, graduation, and ELP?

    • What specific coursetaking patterns are predictors of student achievement on standardized tests and summative outcomes such as graduation?

    • How are specific construct and elements of ELP tests related to test success and coursetaking patterns?


The malleable factors—those that are within the control of schools, districts, and states—that we will examine include:

Course offerings within schools. Research suggests that schools have wide leeway with regard to the courses they offer, such as the number of advanced-level classes, independent of schools’ resource levels. Thus, schools’ course offerings are a malleable factor that could influence the availability and selection of courses available to ELs.

Extra instructional time. English Learners have twin goals in school—learning academic content and acquiring English proficiency—whereas non-English Learners have only the first goal. As such, English Learners may benefit from extra instructional time to accomplish both goals. Schools can provide ELs with extra time in numerous ways that may influence ELs’ course access.

Reclassification policies. Policies for determining when English Learners have attained English proficiency and should be reclassified out of EL services vary by state. These policies are often linked to what courses EL and reclassified students can take, making reclassification policies a malleable factor related to EL course access.

Counselor caseload. Prior research has found that students in schools with lower counselor to student ratios are more successful in navigating the high school-to-college pipeline. We will explore whether counselor caseload is predictive of EL students’ coursetaking patterns and outcomes.

Peer composition. Schools across the country have wide discretion to determine class composition and the extent to which students are grouped homogeneously or heterogeneously. Exposure to peers may also, therefore, be a determinant of ELs’ coursetaking patterns.

Teacher qualifications and characteristics. The final malleable factor we will explore is that of teacher qualifications and characteristics such as teachers’ years of experience, the subjects teachers are certified to teach, whether teachers hold an endorsement for teaching English to speakers of other languages, and teachers’ race/ethnicity and primary language. States have substantial latitude to determine criteria for teacher licensure, including determining the specific requirements content teachers and teachers of English Learners must meet. These policies may influence ELs’ ability to enroll in specific courses.

In this study we will employ both descriptive and causal methods, allowing us to both describe ELs’ course access and our malleable factors across multiple states, as well as to understand the effects of course access on students’ outcomes. For example, the study will encompass hierarchical linear modeling, regression discontinuity, as well as coarsened exact matching designs.

To supplement the coursetaking study, we will undertake an exploratory feature analysis of the content of the ELP assessment used in one state. This feature analysis will identify both (1) the underlying constructs in assessments that best predict overall assessment scores (e.g., cognitive demand of items) and (2) relationships between background and curricular factors and learning outcomes of interest. This analysis can potentially identify relationships not evident when only considering overall ELP assessment scores.

This research will contribute to existing understanding in multiple ways. Most notably, the scope of the study across four geographically and demographically diverse states will greatly expand our understanding of ELs’ course access, understanding that, to date, it has largely been based on examinations of single districts. Second, this work will move beyond studies documenting barriers to ELs’ access toward understanding solutions to those barriers by examining key malleable factors that are within the control of schools, districts, and states. By illuminating the relationship between malleable factors, course access, and outcomes for ELs, this study has the potential to influence policy and practice, as well as further research about approaches for increasing access to courses both within the states in the proposed study and beyond.