For immigrant students, early arrival is best

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Arriving in a new country, in a new school as an immigrant student is never easy. But the transition can be a little less damaging if the student has already spent a few of his or her earliest years in his new home country. This month’s PISA in Focus examines the “late-arrival” penalty in student performance among immigrant students who arrived in their new country at the age of 12 or older.

An analysis of PISA data shows that there are no marked differences in reading proficiency between immigrant students who arrived in their new country before they were five and those who arrived between the ages of six and 11. In contrast, in most OECD countries, immigrant students who arrived at the age of 12 or older – and have spent at most four years in their new country – lag farther behind students in the same grade in reading proficiency than immigrants who arrived at younger ages. 

Countries and economies vary markedly in the magnitude of this “late-arrival penalty” for immigrant students. Differences tend to reflect the composition of the immigrant populations. Australia, for instance, has a large proportion of immigrants from the United Kingdom who already speak the same language as non-immigrant Australians. As a result, the average late-arrival penalty for immigrants in Australia is smaller than that in Germany, for example, where the largest groups of students who were born abroad come from the former USSR, the former Yugoslavia and Turkey.

An examination of age-at-arrival profiles for the major immigrant groups in selected countries confirms the importance of language barriers. In Luxembourg, French children do not suffer a late-arrival penalty; and age-at-arrival seems to make no difference to the reading performance among German students who immigrated to Switzerland. In contrast, 15-year-old students from the former Yugoslavia or Portugal who arrived in Switzerland or Luxembourg within the previous few years fare much worse in reading than immigrant students from the same countries who had spent all their school years in their new country.

But language may not be the only factor involved. Differences in educational and living standards between the origin and destination countries may also be relevant. Overall, an analysis of PISA data finds that immigrant students are particularly at risk of suffering a late-arrival penalty if they arrived at lower secondary-school age from less-developed countries where the home language is not the same as their new language of instruction. These students have to quickly acquire language skills and catch up with the higher levels of attainment achieved by their peers – while simultaneously coping with the difficulties of adjusting to a new school and social environment.

These findings can be used to inform immigration policy: Where late arrival is the result of migration policies that delay family reunification, the intended benefits of these policies should be carefully weighed against the costs of remedial assistance. More immediately, though, targeted help with language skills for those foreign-born students who arrive when they’re in their teens can limit the need for future assistance;and flexible arrangements to defer tracking can help to ensure that students perform at their full potential when decisions are taken about further education. Both measures will have a direct impact on these students’ employment prospects later on.

For more information on PISA:

Photo credit: Children in school, from kindergarten, preschool, elementary / Shutterstock

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