Boosting ELL Achievement, State by State

Boosting ELL Achievement, State by State

Many literacy educators are concerned about meeting the diverse needs of English language learners (ELLs), and rightly so. Using dual-language education programs, educational technology, and in-class instructional support, educators have made strides in helping students learn and master the English language. However, progress still needs to be made. Despite advances in English teaching, research shows that ELLs continue to lag behind their native-English-speaking peers in school.

Just how many American students are currently learning English? More than you might think! In a recent NPR Ed article titled "English Language Learners: How Your State Is Doing," Claudio Sanchez compiled hard data on how ELLs are learning and achieving throughout the United States. Here are some of his findings:  

  • ELLs compose a significant portion of our public school population.
    One in 10 public school students are ELLs.  

  • ELLs speak a variety of different native languages.
    The majority of ELL students (3.8 million) speak Spanish as a first language. Other prevalent languages include Chinese, Arabic, and Vietnamese.

  • Most ELLs are U.S. citizens.
    A total of 85% of ELLs in pre-K through fifth grade and 62% of ELLs in sixth to 12th grade were born in America.  

  • ELLs are academically behind their native-English-speaking peers.
    Sanchez suggested that this is due to the ways in which difficulty with English affects ELLs' ability to learn other subjects. According to Sanchez, “Many ELLs remain stuck in academically segregated programs where they fall behind in basic subjects.”

While these facts and figures apply to the country as a whole, Sanchez’s article also revealed a disparity in how individual states meet the needs of their ELL populations. For example, 63 percent of ELLs graduate high school, compared to the national overall graduation rate of 82 percent. Some states have significant achievement gaps, while others have no gap at all. West Virginia has a total graduation rate of 84.5 percent and an ELL graduation rate of 89 percent; meanwhile, only 18 percent of Arizona's ELL population graduates, compared to 75.7 percent of all Arizona students.   

This state-to-state disparity is rooted in the way ELL students are identified in the first place. This Nov. 2014 article by the Education Commission of the States breaks down how each state recognizes ELLs. Some states, such as Iowa, have a multi-step process for assessing students’ language-learning needs. When a new student registers for public school in Iowa, the district determines where the child was born, what languages besides English are spoken prominently in the home, and which language a child acquired first. Further, Iowan public school students who have been exposed to another language at home have their English proficiency and academic skills assessed by the district. (Unsurprisingly, Iowa has one of the lowest gaps in graduation between ELLs and native-English-speakers: 83 percent of ELLs graduate high school compared to 90 percent of all students.)

While early identification may be key to assessing the needs of ELLs, there are many more factors to consider. For instance, educators qualified to work in ESL, bilingual, and dual-language programs are in high demand and short supply. Sanchez’s report showed that in 2016, 32 states reported a shortage of teachers for their ELL students. In addition to training more educators to work in dual-language and language-acquisition programs, districts should ensure that schools with high ELL populations have more of these highly qualified educators.  

Finally, educators face the challenge of addressing the diverse academic abilities of their ELL students. By identifying ELLs who are gifted learners, schools are able to match these students with challenging and relevant material while also addressing their language-learning needs. Research shows that a gap also exists between gifted ELL and native-English-speaking students. Sanchez’s data indicated that 7.3 percent of native-English-speakers are enrolled in gifted programs, compared to only 2 percent of ELLs.  

Assessing the needs of the whole student—English language proficiency, academic strengths, and learning challenges—allows educators to tailor their teaching to meet individual circumstances. As educators work to close the achievement gaps between ELLs and native-English-speakers state by state, it’s helpful to keep the following in mind:

  • Prioritize early and thorough identification of ELLs' specific language influences and learning needs

  • Increase training and availability of teachers qualified to teach ELL programs

  • Recognize diverse learning needs of ELLs, such as giftedness, special needs, or particular interests

The disparity in ELL achievement rates from state to state illustrates what educators already know: Individual approaches make a big difference. We can follow the example of states that have narrowed the gap between ELLs and native-English-speakers while also taking time to recognize the unique needs of our own school populations. In devoting the extra time and resources that our ELL students need, the achievement gap will start to close—and, most importantly, students of all backgrounds will be more equipped to reach their academic potential.

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