Anyone who follows valedictorians in urban high schools has probably wondered about the performance-enhancing power of a second language, given the number of top-ranking graduates who are immigrants and current or former language learners. ‘English. Of Boston’s 34 public school valedictorians this spring, 16 are former English learners — 47% — though only 13% of all students in the district are former ELs, according to BPS. (The current crop of valedictorians also includes three current English Learners.)

At a time when the urgent unmet needs of large numbers of Boston’s English learners are in focus again, as Boston public schools try to avoid a state takeover with plans to address long-standing failures, English learners’ advocates nationwide say it’s time to have a more nuanced conversation that balances the concerns of at-risk students with greater recognition of their potential.

“A lot of data only tells half the story,” said Leslie Villegas, senior policy analyst at New America, a nonprofit research group in Washington, DC. “The ‘English Learner’ label is meant to help students get the services they need; it’s not meant to be a deficit-focused way of defining who they are. They won’t always be ELs, they will be bilingual.

The promise shown by bilingual students underscores the seriousness of teaching English learners well – and the potential payoff if schools excel at the task.

Of all Massachusetts students who took the MCAS exam in Grade 10 in 2019, former English learners — defined as those who left EL status within the last four years — passed the English Language Arts portion of the testing at a higher rate than any other group of students, with 98 percent scoring high enough to meet the graduation requirement. Comparable rates were 95% for all students, 97% for white students, 85% for students with disabilities and 68% for English learners, according to state data. When math and English scores were combined, 92% of former English learners passed both, compared to 89% of all students.

Gigi Luk, a McGill University researcher specializing in bilingualism, saw a similar trend when she analyzed MCAS data from 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 in her previous role at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, finding that former English learners outperformed other students in grades. 3-5.

Scientific study has yet to deeply probe the reasons, she said. But the results show the long-term value of investing in English learners.

“English proficiency is a stepping stone to academic success,” Luk said. “Getting ELs the support they need is the first step to making everyone successful.”

The same pattern emerged when another researcher examined high school graduation rates in Oregon. Karen Thompson, a professor at Oregon State University, found a slightly higher four-year graduation rate for former English learners than for other students in 2017: 80%, compared to 77% for those who had not. never been EL. The margin was similar last year: 84% versus 81%.

Thompson said she pushed the state to generate more data specific to former English learners, to flesh out what has long been a fragmented and incomplete picture of their academic trajectory.

In Massachusetts, it can also be difficult to reconcile the struggles of early English learners with their later fluency, in order to fully understand their progress and potential.

The low scores of English learners, as they strive to acquire a new language, have been the focus of attention and concern. Only 40% of current English language learners in the class of 2019 and 44% in the class of 2020 have passed all three required segments of the MCAS state exam, in math, science and English, when they learn it. passed in 10th grade.

But some say more attention needs to be paid to the timing of exams and when students learning English can reasonably face high-stakes tests.

The state’s emphasis on first time and second year pass rates obscure the big picture. By the time Grade 10 English learners immerse themselves in their new language for two more years and reach the end of Grade 12, about twice as many are able to pass the exam: 85% in the 2019 and 82% in the class of 2020, according to state data. (Students have five chances to take and pass MCAS, and can also appeal the requirement.)

Many advocates for English learners have criticized the use of MCAS for their assessment, for obvious but sometimes overlooked reasons: it is administered in a language they do not speak.

“The idea of ​​measuring English learner outcomes using MCAS is ludicrous,” said Rosann Tung, a Boston-based researcher who has long studied the needs of students learning English. “They haven’t yet learned enough English to acquire the content they need taught in English, or to decipher a given test in a language they are still learning.”

The focus on test scores, for students still learning English, perpetuates a “failure narrative” that can color their self-image, she said. And when students lose hope of succeeding — or see no path to graduation — they are at a higher risk of dropping out, experts have said.

“English learners are not failures,” Tung said. “Bilingualism is good for the brain and we need to value linguistic diversity.

Kelin Funes, a senior from Boston International High School, recalls her first time facing MCAS. A newcomer from El Salvador who didn’t know English, she felt anxious and confused as she skimmed through the blur of words she didn’t yet know, “trying to connect the few words I knew”.

Within two years of arriving in 2019, however, Funes had mastered English, going through five levels of English learner status to land in the AP and honors classes. Headed to UMass Lowell in the fall to pursue a career in biotechnology research, she said she had only recently discussed her first MCAS experience with friends and thought about “how unfair it is to s expect English learners to have the language they need to answer these questions.

State education officials recently proposed raising the minimum MCAS scores required for graduation, reigniting longstanding concerns among some experts and advocates about the risks to disadvantaged students, including learners of English.

“It’s admirable to have high standards,” said John Mudd, a longtime member of the Boston School Committee’s English Language Learner Task Force. “But lofty goals, without real help in achieving them, are hypocritical and damaging.”

In many ways, the pandemic has taken a heavier toll on English learners, as shutdowns cost immigrant families jobs and incomes and force teenagers to work longer. School districts struggled to connect with them, while they struggled to learn a new language online. School disruptions meant that fewer English learners were tested to determine their proficiency; consequently, fewer children were placed in classes corresponding to their specific needs.

Louis Kruger, professor emeritus of psychology at Northeastern University who analyzed recent MCAS data for English learners, said the state hasn’t done enough to track their results and should wait to tighten requirements. of MCAS before the actual cost for the past two years. is clear.

“How many have left school? said Kruger. “We do not know.”

For those who persist, there are many hopeful examples, including Teame Araya, this year’s valedictorian at Boston International High School. He arrived in this country in December 2018 knowing only a few phrases of English, but he was very motivated to learn: a refugee from Eritrea, in East Africa, who came to the United States without his family, he knew no one here who spoke his mother tongue, Tigrinya.

“Because I had to learn English to communicate, I was very ambitious, I worked very hard,” said Araya, 21, who will attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst on a scholarship and plans to become a doctor.

He believes that the persistence he first practiced in learning a new language became rooted in his approach to school.

“You get used to going the extra mile, compared to others, and it becomes a habit,” he said.

The The Great Divide Team explores education inequalities in Boston and across the state. Sign up to receive our newsletterand send ideas and advice to [email protected].

Jenna Russell can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.