University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy

ABC Pre-K Shows Benefits for ELLs

In The View from the OEP on January 27, 2021 at 11:50 am

Last week, OEP reported on the positive student outcomes associated with Arkansas Better Chance (ABC) pre-K attendance. Today, we add further insight to that report’s findings by offering evidence that the ABC program may be especially beneficial for students who enter school with limited English proficiency. These students, often called English Language Learners (ELL), face a unique set of challenges as they navigate K-12 education with the added task of mastering a second language. As we serve an increasing number of ELLs in Arkansas public schools, we must work to determine how to help these students achieve English proficiency as early as possible to mitigate the challenges associated with the language barrier. 

Arkansas’s state-funded ABC program provides tuition-free pre-K opportunities for qualifying families, and it is considered a high-quality program, as ABC teachers must have bachelor’s degrees and AR teacher licenses. Research that examines public pre-K programs in other states demonstrates that ELL students experience especially pronounced benefits from such programs (Gormley, 2008; Lipsey, 2018). We examine whether that pattern holds true for ELL students in Arkansas. In this analysis, we follow three cohorts of Arkansas students (those who began Kindergarten in the fall of 2011, 2012, and 2013) through 5th grade to see the long-term outcomes of ABC participants who enter school with an ELL designation. Our outcomes of interest are math and reading achievement, as demonstrated by statewide assessments, as well as the likelihood of students exiting the ELL program by 5th grade. Our research design does not allow us to make causal claims of the program’s impact, but we hope that these findings will inform us of the potential for ABC programs to serve the ELL student population. You can read the policy brief or the full paper for more details, but here are the takeaways:

•          Approximately 10% of ABC pre-K enrollment is comprised of ELL students, making this student group over-enrolled relative to its 8% of K-12 enrollment. This is a positive and unsurprising pattern, given that ABC targets its enrollment toward high-risk student populations. 

•          We find positive, statistically significant relationships between ABC attendance and math and reading achievement across 3rd to 5th grades in all three cohorts of analysis. Gains are large and meaningful, although they are too limited in most cases to close achievement gaps between ELL and non-ELL students. 

•          Evidence from our subgroup analysis shows that ELL students who attend ABC pre-K experience a differentially positive benefit in two of three cohorts analyzed. This means that ABC attendance is associated with greater achievement benefits for ELL students over and above the program benefit for English-proficient students. 

•          ELL students who attend ABC pre-K are less likely to remain identified as ELL in 3rd to 5th grades. The process for exiting the ELL program is complex and involves demonstrating English proficiency on a variety of measures. ELL students who attended ABC were 9 percentage points less likely to be designated ELL by 5th grade, compared to those who did not attend ABC prior to starting Kindergarten, in the second cohort of analysis. 

While ELL students are currently over-enrolled in ABC programs relative to their K-12 enrollment, it is clear that they experience especially positive benefits from ABC, over and above the benefits for English-proficient students. Based on the findings from this analysis, policymakers and community leaders should consider efforts to further expand ELL enrollment in ABC pre-K programs across the state. The current strategy for program advertisement is through communication with families in schools, churches, and other community spaces. Additional efforts could include outreach in organizations that include many linguistic-minority community members. Also, program organizers in school districts across the state should ensure that applications and program materials are available in all non-English languages represented in their communities, including Spanish and Marshallese. Education leaders should also brainstorm ways to provide sustained support to this student subgroup, as ABC pre-K participation alone does not seem to be sufficient for closing the gap between ELL/non-ELL achievement. While we would love to employ a causal research design in the future, the patterns presented here are encouraging and suggest that ABC pre-K is a promising early intervention for this vulnerable student group. 

  1. Thank you for your important work!

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