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Presence of Immigrant Students Boosts Test Scores for All

April 25, 2021

students from overheadU.S.-born students with high exposure to immigrants in their schools scored better on math and reading tests than similar students with low exposure to immigrants, according to a working paper co-authored by School of Education and Social Policy Dean David Figlio and published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“What’s more, economically disadvantaged and Black students received the greatest boost from studying alongside immigrant peers, enjoying a bump in performance twice as large as other native-born students,” Evelyn Iritani wrote in UCLA Anderson Review. 

Research suggests immigrants are relatively better behaved in school, and thus less disruptive and, in some cases, being academically advanced relative to their U.S.-born classmates.

But studying how the presence of immigrant students impacts U.S.-born students has been complicated in part due to the tendency of some white families to flee schools with high immigrant enrollments, Iritani wrote. Other statistical issues include the vastly different levels of English language capability, parental education and economic status found in both immigrant and native populations in the U.S.; and the perception that immigrants exert a negative influence on their classmates fed by the fact that non-U.S.-born students often concentrate in schools with overall lower test scores.

The working paper, which relies on a Florida dataset that links population-level school records and birth records, tries to screen out those complicating factors. The researchers were able to to focus on siblings who shared the same family characteristics (i.e., parents, economic status, access to teaching support) but who had different levels of exposure to immigrants in their schools. The paper further restricted the sample to U.S.-born students who spoke English at home.

By tracking these sibling sets over time, starting with kindergarten, the researchers were able to link educational performance with the students’ cumulative exposure to immigrants. Interestingly enough, when they looked at all students, they found a “significant — although small in magnitude — negative correlation” between the share of immigrants and the math and reading test scores of their native-born peers.

But when they zeroed in on siblings, that relationship between exposure to immigrants and academic performance turned positive. The U.S.-born students with a higher cumulative exposure to immigrants scored better on math and reading tests.

The researchers attribute the differing results to the white flight phenomenon, in which white and affluent students with higher scores leave schools with high immigrant concentrations. By focusing on sibling pairs, the study was able to prevent the school selection problem from skewing their results.

In addition to Figlio, the paper is co-authored by UCLA Anderson’s Paola Giuliano, Riccardo Marchingiglio, an economist with the Analysis Group, Umut Özek, principal researcher at the American Institute for Research, and Northwestern’s Paola Sapienza, economist and the Professor Donald C. Clark/HSBC Chair in Consumer Finance at the Kellogg School of Management.

Read the entire piece.