California Eyes Tracking Long-Term English Language Learners

A common misconception about English language learners is that they are new immigrants. In fact, many middle and high school students who carry the label have been attending American schools for years without reaching English proficiency. In some cases, they are even U.S.-born.

The academic struggles of these students raises plenty of questions, including this one: Why are they stuck in the system? But in order to find solutions, schools must first acknowledge that the problem exists, instead of insisting these limited English proficient students are newcomers. In Texas, I found that many school administrators adhered to the new immigrant theory. In some cases, as one bilingual education program director told me, they were just unaware of the reality in their own schools.

However, a growing number of researchers are addressing a population known as long-term English language learners. These students speak English, but have not picked up the academic skills necessary to be considered proficient.

Lesli Maxwell of Education Week reports that California may soon become the first state to truly acknowledge that they have a problem. The California Legislature approved requiring school districts to report annual data on the long-term students, in addition to identifying students at-risk of falling into the category. Gov. Jerry Brown will consider signing the bill on Sept. 28.

Because the state has such a large population, it could spur other states to take similar actions.

Part of this action was prompted by a two-year-old report, “Reparable Harm,” by the group Californians Together. The organization found that about 59 percent of ELLs in grades 6-12 had been enrolled in U.S. schools more than six years, had been at the same English proficiency level two or more years, and performed at low levels on the state’s English language arts exam.

Reporting requirements will inspire more efforts to close the gaps, said Laurie Olsen, the researcher who wrote “Reparable  Harm.”

“That’s why the legislation is important, because right now what’s happening is haphazard, and it’s not of the quality and coherence we need in order to see real, systemic improvement,” she told Education Week.

The publication reports that the causes are a lack of academic language and students not being engaged in school. But school officials in Tracy, Calif., already are taking action. They created the Academic and Language Support Program, which offers an elective to long-term students in addition to their English classes focused on academic English.

For now, California is in the position of setting an example for the nation.

Related Links:

– “Calif. poised to spotlight ELLs stalled in Schools.” Education Week. 

– “Study finds ELL students languising in Calif. Schools.” Education Week. 

– “Reparable Harm: Fulfilling the unkept promise of educational opportunity for California’s Long Term English Learners.” Californians Together.

– Research Reports: Long-term ELLs. Colorin Colorado. 

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For English Language Learners, a Fast Exit Leads to Future Success

A new study by the Migration Policy Institute has found that English language learners who exit bilingual or English as a second language programs within three years perform better in meeting basic math and reading standards than students who spend five years or more in such programs.The study highlights the challenges of so-called long-term English language learners, who spend years in the system without reaching English proficiency and often are at high risk of dropping out of high school.

“The weaker academic performance evidenced by long-term ELLS raises important questions on how to address their literacy and linguistic needs,” said MPI senior vice president Michael Fix. “However, with much still unknown about the reasons why students remain in ELL status for many years, it would not be prudent to conclude that language acquisition instruction should be time-limited.”

The study analyzed data from Texas, looking at students who were first-graders in 1995 and high school seniors in 2006. In Texas, about 17 percent of public school students were classified as limited English proficient in 2011. Texas law requires bilingual education when a school district enrolls 20 or more ELL students in the same grade who share a language .

Of those students who exited within three years, 86 percent passed Texas’ 11th grade math exam, compared with 59 percent of students who were in bilingual or ESL programs for five years or more and 44 percent of students enrolled in such programs for seven or more years.

Many of the long-term students speak English proficiently but have poor literacy skills in English that hold them back. These findings are an important reminder that reporters should not assume that high-school students designated as ELLs are all new immigrants. I’ve often heard school administrators say recent immigrants limited in English are the ones who are drop out. A Texas ELL program director once told me she was frustrated that administrators in her district held this misconception that all older ELLs are recent immigrants. The uncomfortable truth is many of these ELLs have been in the system for a long time and are American-born. In the past, many of these Texas students didn’t graduate from high school because they had to pass 11th grade exams to get a diploma. Soon, students will also be required to pass end-of-course exams to move forward a grade.

In the MPI study, the top-performing students exited within three years and also attended Texas schools for all 12 grades. On the other end of the spectrum, researchers found that Hispanic ELLs whose parents refuse ESL/bilingual education programs were less likely to go to college. The study also found that students who worked while attending high school were more likely to enroll in college.

Read the complete study here. Vanderbilt University assistant professor Stella M. Flores obtained and analyzed the Texas data, and authored the report with Fix and policy analyst Jeanne Batalova. It raises a lot of questions: Are high student mobility and poorly constructed language acquisition programs to blame?