Upon enrolling their child in public school for the first time, families embark on a time-honored but toilsome tradition: filling out paperwork. Amongst the barrage, parents and caretakers will likely fill out a home language survey — a staple in the English learner identification process. Schools use this form to learn whether students speak a language other than English at home, and if so, schools assess the student to determine if they are in fact an English learner (EL). Students that are deemed ELs join a group of about 5 million other ELs currently enrolled in U.S. public schools.
English learners do not always remain ELs, though. They can be reclassified through the following process: Once identified, federal law requires that ELs be placed in a Language Instruction Educational Program (LIEP), following parent approval, and subsequently monitored until they attain English proficiency and meet state-mandated criteria to exit programs. Once they meet those criteria, districts monitor former-ELs’ academic progress for four years. How long these ELs remain a part of the EL subgroup varies greatly, in no small part due to the muddled process of EL reclassification – a problem that a new report could potentially help address.
What should be a straightforward four-part reclassification process is anything but when it comes to implementation. Though federal law dictates the mandatory steps involved in the process, states have autonomy to set their own exit criteria for ELs. Many states use different exams to measure English proficiency (some that they devise themselves), and even when they use the same assessment, they often define “proficiency” by different benchmarks. To complicate the process further, some states give school districts and individual schools ample control over the exit criteria and process (although this practice is slated to end under the Every Student Succeeds Act). As a result, current reclassification practices in schools can be as misguided as they are myriad.
My colleague Conor Williams highlighted these discrepancies in his comprehensive 50-state scan of reclassification policies, Chaos for English Learners, where he writes, “States’ reclassification policies align only by accident. Students who satisfy South Dakota’s reclassification requirements could well be several years away from meeting Michigan’s benchmark.”
But serious reforms face the central question: How many years should it take ELs to obtain English proficiency after being identified as ELs?
Answering this question incorrectly carries big consequences for ELs. In fact, studies show that ELs who are reclassified too early or too late are more likely to exhibit lower levels of academic achievement and higher dropout rates than their peers who are reclassified more aptly. The reasons behind these outcomes are simple enough. ELs who shed their English learner status too quickly lose necessary language supports; to make matters worse, the federal and state governments do not provide extra funding to districts for the support of former-ELs. ELs who are reclassified too late, by contrast, may get fewer opportunities to interact with mainstream peers and often miss out on more advanced content instruction. As my colleague Janie Carnock explains, to overcome this “Goldilocks” dilemma we should aim to “exit ELs not too early, not too late, but when it’s just right for their long-term success.” But the question remains: How long is “just right”?
New research on EL language acquisition trajectories could prove vital to answering this all-important question of timing. A November 2017 report of Hispanic ELs residing in Texas public schools — conducted through a collaboration between Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest (REL Southwest) at American Institutes for Research (AIR) and REL Southwest’s English Learners Research Alliance — analyzed eight years worth of academic achievement data for over 85,000 ELs starting from their enrollment in first grade. They found that of students entering second grade without English proficiency, 50 percent of them reached proficiency in 2.6 years (by the middle of fourth grade). By eighth grade, approximately 88 percent of ELs had satisfied English proficiency.
These Texas-based ELs' progress toward English proficiency align with existing research projections, which suggest that it takes four to seven years to obtain full English proficiency. In a 2015 study of ELs residing in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), for example, 60 percent of ELs attained proficiency within the four to seven-year window. Although Texas and California use different measures of English language proficiency and set different criteria for reclassification, it is still notable that LAUSD ELs seem to have fared worse than their Texas peers on their path to English proficiency. In fact, about one-fourth of the students analyzed at LAUSD were still not reclassified by ninth grade, nine years after their initial classification as ELs. In contrast, only 12 percent of Texas ELs were in the same place by eighth grade.
Both reports do agree on one point: specific subgroups of ELs lag in English proficiency and struggle to meet reclassification criteria. It took half of the cohort of Texas ELs enrolled in special education 5.6 years after beginning second grade (by the middle of seventh grade) to attain English proficiency on the state-mandated English proficiency exam, compared to the 2.6 years it took half of their EL peers not receiving special education services. For Texas ELs, age at enrollment in first grade was also consequential: students who were seven years or older at the time of enrollment in first grade were half as likely to attain English proficiency than their peers enrolled in first grade at an earlier age. Finally, students enrolled in free and reduced lunch services — a common proxy measure for low-income status — were also less likely to attain English proficiency.
The study of LAUSD ELs also found that students enrolled in special education made up a disproportionate segment (30 percent) of students who did not achieve English proficiency by ninth grade. Additionally, researchers found that students whose initial performance in English was low in kindergarten were 24 percent less likely to be reclassified by ninth grade than their peers. Additional groups that struggled to attain English proficiency in LAUSD were boys and students whose parents had lower levels of education. Previous research supports both of the studies’ findings and also shores up additional vulnerable EL sub-groups, including Spanish-speaking ELs and foreign-born ELs.
Now that there is growing empirical support for better reclassification policies, there are several difficult next steps for states, districts, and schools to consider:
Adopting research-based supports that can help ELs reach English proficiency within a reasonable timespan;
Ensuring that language acquisition is not taught in isolation, but instead is embedded with content instruction so that ELs do not fall unduly behind on academics;
Offering specialized support to subgroups who are are at risk of falling behind and differentiating progress expectations for these subgroups when necessary;
Lengthening the monitoring period through 12th grade and increasing financial support for former-ELs; and
Standardizing English proficiency measures and reclassification criteria between states to ensure that ELs in all states are held up to the same standards.
ELs face a host of educational roadblocks that, if left unaddressed, can greatly impact their academic and personal trajectories. Given recent research that highlights the link between reclassification policies and EL outcomes, it is only fair that decision makers work to develop empirically-grounded reclassification policies. So many students are or have been ELs and their number will likely grow in the coming years. While reforming reclassification policies and practices alone will not address all of their challenges, for many ELs, the right supports could be the difference between graduating high school prepared to participate in higher education and dropping out.
Editor's Note: December 9, 2017—Changes were made to the original post to demonstrate the report of Texas-based ELs was conducted by Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest (REL Southwest) at American Institutes for Research (AIR) in collaboration with REL Southwest’s English Learners Research Alliance. The report was funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) at the U.S. Department of Education. A second change was made to indicate the report’s findings of ELs’ time to English proficiency are consistent with existing research projections.