Starting Behind: Interrupted Formal Schooling Among Immigrant Students

Blog Post
Jan. 10, 2019

Immigrant students arrive in the U.S. with a variety of educational backgrounds and experiences. Some immigrant students come with strong academic backgrounds. These students are often able to catch up and sometimes exceed the academic achievements of their U.S. born native English speaking peers. However, other immigrant students arrive under different circumstances and with insufficient academic experiences due to interruptions in their formal education.

Immigrant students––regardless of their grade level––may experience interrupted formal schooling when they haven’t received any formal education or have missed years of formal education in their native countries. Consequently, students with interrupted formal education (SIFE) may not be academically prepared in their native language or have knowledge of grade-level content material.

Yet, U.S. schools do not often recognize the prevalence of students with interrupted formal schooling or have educational supports in place to better serve them. For instance, a report on students with interrupted formal schooling conducted in 2010 by the Advocates for Children of New York indicated that schools not only fail to identify SIFE students but also tend to classify and recommend them to receive special education services due to their lack of academic skills at their age/grade level.

Fortunately, a new study published online in the American Educational Research Journal seeks to answer the question of how many SIFE students are present in U.S. schools. The study’s author, Stephanie Potochick, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, examined data from the 2002 Educational Longitudinal Study (ELS), a national-level survey sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education to learn more about the size and academic performance of students with interrupted formal schooling.

Dr. Potochnick analyzed information collected from tenth graders who participated in the ELS to identify students with missed years of formal schooling and linked that with information their age of arrival and last grade completed in their home countries.

She found that 11.4 percent of tenth grade immigrant students have experienced interrupted formal schooling before arriving in the U.S. Importantly, the findings indicate that 65 percent of SIFE students are more likely to arrive in the U.S. at the secondary-grade age (i.e., 12 or older). These students will experience an average of a 2 year grade gap meaning that they will be at a disadvantage and likely to face many academic challenges. Dr. Potochnick cites research comparing the performance of SIFE students with those of other English learner (EL) students and notes that students with interrupted formal schooling are “20 percent to 50 percent less likely to meet proficiency standards on fourth-and eighth-grade reading and math tests, and...take over a year longer to test out of English language learner status.”

Students with interruption in their formal education not only have to learn the English language, master academic content for their current age/grade level, but also need to learn about living in a different country. If no interventions are in place to better serve them, these students will most likely drop out of school and never enroll again.

This study affirms that U.S. schools are serving an increasing number of immigrant students with interrupted formal schooling who need unique and adequate educational supports. The study mentioned promising programs that schools can offer to students with interrupted formal schooling to get up to speed with their grade level peers like summer, after school, and night classes.

Newcomer programs can also be implemented in schools for students with interrupted formal schooling to thrive academically. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) released the updated version of the Newcomer Tool Kit, which recognized the needs of SIFE students and recommended newcomer programs in schools. Newcomer programs can offer services, classes, and resources for students to get acclimated to U.S. schools, learn the English language, and develop foundational skills in content areas such as basic literacy and math concepts.

Additionally, Colorín Colorado has provided ten school-wide recommendations to support ELs with interrupted formal schooling. One of these interventions includes building supportive school environments that respond to the social, cultural, and linguistic needs of immigrant students with interrupted formal schooling such as hiring school staff who are able to communicate in students’ native languages. Other strategies include training school personnel to understand the cultural and historical background of recently-arrived immigrant students and know how to build on their linguistic and cultural strengths.

More studies with national datasets that include pre-migration indicators of children’s previous formal schooling before arriving to the U.S. are needed. In addition to implications for further research, this study calls for policymakers to advocate for The New Immigrant Survey (NIS)—a national multi-cohort longitudinal study of new documented immigrants and their children to the U.S.—to include indicators on children’s pre-migration schooling that can be used to better serve this community of learners in schools. Hopefully, as more studies focus on immigrant students with interruptions in their formal education, more effective and cost-effective interventions will be implemented in schools to help these students thrive.

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English Learners