Vinson Logo


Rotate Your Device

Should LEP Students Master English Before Taking on Math?

Michael Nutter

April 11, 2018

Meeting the needs of students with limited English proficiency can be a challenge, especially in subjects like math where a baseline level of English is critical to success.

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act requires that “[School districts] must act to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by students in their instructional programs.” Public schools do everything they can to ensure that limited English proficiency (LEP) students have the same fair chance at academic success that their English-proficient peers do, offering courses that help LEP students reach fluency. The problem is that while these students learn English, they’re often missing out on other fields that their peers are already mastering.

Math remains an area of particular concern for English learners, with many districts opting not to teach it to them at grade-level until they achieve proficiency. This is especially true in states like California, where roughly a fifth of all K-12 students are English language learners. But some schools in the state are using novel approaches to start LEP students’ math education as early as possible.

The State of LEP Math in California

According to a recent report issued by The Education Trust-West, “Wide and persistent gaps in math achievement separate English learners from their English-proficient peers.” Under 12% of LEP students met or exceeded standards in math on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) from 2015 to 2017, compared to 58% of non-English learners. As a result, California LEP students are placed in remedial math courses 2.5 times more frequently than their fluent peers, and are more than three times less likely to be placed in an advanced math course at the start of high school.

This sort of math achievement gap largely stems from the unfounded assumption that schools should improve their LEP students’ language skills before exposing them to rigorous instruction in subjects like math and science. More often than not, by the time LEP students achieve baseline English proficiency and are able to take “normal” math and science courses, it’s simply too late for them to catch up to their native English-speaking peers.

According to co-author of the Common Core math standards Phil Daro, math and English are completely intertwined, and exposing LEP students to instruction in both as early as possible is pivotal to students’ success. “You can’t learn math without language,” he says. “There is an old idea that you can work around the language and just get to content. This isn’t true.”

Mounting Evidence for a Hybrid Approach

Encouragingly, a number of California school districts have restructured their programs for LEP students in a way that allows for instruction in English and instruction in math to inform one another from the get-go.

Take the Westminster School District, where more than 40% of students are English language learners. Westminster trained all of its teachers to integrate language development activities into instruction in every subject, at every grade level. What’s more, as the report summarizes, “the district is running two dual-language programs: one in Vietnamese and one in Spanish…so students are taught math in two languages, leveraging students’ home language skills.” This multi-pronged approach has raised math proficiency rates among the district’s LEP students every year since 2015.

Similarly, the San Francisco Unified School District has adopted a course sequencing policy that allows all students to be placed in Common Core-aligned math courses while receiving additional language support as needed. These courses are “designed to facilitate math discourse and collaborative problem solving [and] provide students with ample opportunity to practice using academic math language.”

Since unveiling this policy in 2014, San Francisco Unified has seen remarkable improvements to the math proficiency of its LEP students, including a 6% jump in test scores in the last two years alone. In fact, 29% of LEP eleventh graders in the district met or exceeded CAASPP math standards in 2017, a mark more than five times higher than the statewide average.

Funding Forward-Thinking LEP Math Programs

As Westminster and San Francisco Unified make clear, school districts don’t have to let LEP students fall behind as they strive towards fluency. But it takes plenty of funding to support instructors as they adopt new teaching approaches, so districts must make an effort to claim every penny of state funding they deserve. In places like Ohio, state law provides additional funding based on the number of LEP students a district enrolls. As such, Superintendents and Treasurers have a responsibility to keep a precise tally of their LEP students at all times.

Doing that can be a challenge, but with an EMIS platform like CheckPoint, districts can rest assured that their enrollment figures are accurate and up-to-date. CheckPoint’s innovative LEP module helps district stakeholders make sure that every student eligible for LEP support is enrolled in a program, track how long students have been enrolled in specific LEP programs, and more, guaranteeing that not a penny of state funding is left on the table.

get in touch