English Learner Scores Have Been Stuck for Two Decades. What Will It Take to Change?

Do English learners eventually gain these skills later in their K-12 education, as they become more proficient in English?

While available NAEP data doesn’t make that clear, federal data shows that the national graduation rate for students overall and for English learners is about the same — but can vary widely state by state. New York, Louisiana and Nebraska had the worst high school graduation rates for English learners in the 2019-20 school year, at 52 percent or less, while graduation rates for non-English learner students were at 83 percent or above.

A recent report from the Education Trust-New York highlighted inequity in student outcomes, including for those who are Black, Latino, low-income, have disabilities or are multilingual. It noted that only 15 percent of third grade multilingual learners were scored “proficient” on the state’s 2022-23 English language arts assessment.

“When students are proficient in reading by the end of third grade, they are better able to engage in learning across all subjects and are more likely to experience continued success throughout their academic journey,” the report explains. “Given the relationship between third grade ELA performance and future student success, these findings should sound an alarm bell.”

Challenges in the Field

From Gonzales’ vantage point, a major barrier to improving education for English learners lies in the curriculum materials that school districts select. She also nodded to bilingual teacher shortages in some parts of the country as a factor.

While she feels dual language programs offer the most support for English learners, Gonzales says the reality is that four out of every five of those students are in English-only classrooms.

According to a teacher survey her organization released in 2022, about 80 percent of teachers who have at least one English learner student say their curriculum doesn’t provide research-backed practices for supporting those students.

“We’re hearing very loud and clear that teachers don’t feel equipped, and that is a huge issue in this space,” Gonzales says. “That’s really where we’re trying to change some of these systemic things that are happening in this space. We really do feel like there’s so many things that can happen in day-to-day learning, but curricula really is a foundation for all of the learning that’s happening.”

Even if a teacher speaks Spanish, one of the most common home languages among English learners, she might find herself with six or seven different languages spoken in her classroom. The best solution, Gonzales says, would be for teachers to have educational materials that could be used for any English learner.

Whether students do well when they are tested in fourth grade depends on how prepared they were to start kindergarten, she adds. Even a strong reading foundation in their home language can improve their progress in English, Gonzales explains, but not every multilingual student enters school on that firm footing.

Ultimately, the education field also needs a mindset shift when it comes to English learners, she says. Part of that is teachers from every department — English language arts, math and science — having the desire to make their lessons inclusive for multilingual students, Gonzales says.

While there’s much more work to be done, she says there is more conversation about being inclusive of English learners than when she began her tenure at the forum seven years ago — including publishers and curriculum developers who have them in mind during their design process.

Gonzales notes that in some parts of the country, English learners are a significant part of the student body. Like in California, where they make up nearly 20 percent of K-12 students in public schools.

“The fact that we’re talking about the fastest-growing student demographic in our U.S. public schools, they cannot be an afterthought anymore,” she says. “We’ve been having them as an afterthought for the last 20 years, and it hasn’t changed anything. At the very least, this is what our students deserve.”

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