First Extensive Study of Long-Term English Learners Finds Significant Differences Across U.S.

April 16, 2019   |   By Lynn Armitage

MADISON, WIS. – The broadest study ever undertaken of long-term English learners (LTELs) in U.S. public schools underscores the need to better understand how students receive this classification, and why the size of the LTEL population varies widely across and within states. Since LTEL status may negatively impact future educational opportunities and outcomes, the study calls for a much closer examination of how students become classified as LTELs across the U.S.

The nearly year-long study, conducted by experts on multilingual learners at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is based on population data from 15 states that track students who remain classified as English learners for five or more years. They found the population of LTEL students varies from 2 to 24 percent across the states studied.

“Currently, one in five students in the U.S. comes from a home in which a language other than English is spoken, and English learners are the fastest growing subgroup of K-12 students in the country,” says Sarah Ryan, director of Research, Policy, and Evaluation for WIDA, housed at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research within the university’s School of Education.

According to Ryan, WIDA is in a unique position to conduct longitudinal research on language learners.  As a consortium, it provides high-quality academic language development standards, assessments, professional development and research support to 40 member states, territories and federal agencies, as well as over 400 schools around the world.

“We have exclusive access to data on the entire population of young language learners in most U.S. states, which no other organization has collected,” Ryan says. “And we have an opportunity and responsibility to use the data in ways that lead to greater equity for multilingual children and youth.”

It was through the lens of equity that Ryan and her colleague, WIDA researcher Narek Sahakyan, approached the LTEL study. While previous research has focused on LTEL populations in primarily Arizona, California, New York and Texas, constituents across the WIDA Consortium wanted to better understand this population nationally.

LTELs are defined as English-language learners who have not yet reached a minimum threshold of English-language proficiency after five to seven years in a U.S. school. The WIDA researchers defined a common “minimum threshold” as a composite proficiency level of 4.5 on the ACCESS for ELLs English-language proficiency assessment to identify potential LTELs. It is the lowest threshold WIDA member states used to reclassify students as fully English-proficient between 2009-10 and 2014-15, the study’s timeframe.

“Each state sets its own threshold of ACCESS scores required for reclassification, so what it means to be a LTEL varies from state to state,” explains Sahakyan. “Early estimates claim as many as one-quarter to one-half of ELs would become classified as LTELs, but we really had no data from other states to back that up. Our study addresses this gap.”

He adds: “The rates of potential LTELs we uncovered may underestimate the size of this population since about 20 percent of students in the study discontinued participation in the ACCESS assessment before meeting state criteria for reclassification. We suspect that many of these students moved out of the state or country.”

Reclassification is key because it can serve as a gatekeeper to more advanced courses and learning opportunities, especially when EL students reach middle and high school. Often, when English-learner students reach the secondary level, they are clustered together into separate courses.

“So instead of taking biology in 10th grade, ELs might take ‘sheltered biology.’ And a sheltered version of a class does not usually offer college-preparatory credit,” says Sahakyan, emphasizing that taking a non-college-tracked course in high school could result in missed learning opportunities that will have an impact on future educational and economic success.

In their report, Ryan and Sahakyan point to the dilemma for education researchers and practitioners in identifying and examining LTELs as a subgroup, while knowing that labels can be stigmatizing to students.

“The process of labeling a subgroup of students as LTELs can perpetuate the inequity we aim to address. Yet, by not using this terminology, we might silence growing and necessary attention focused on meeting the needs of these students, which are often overlooked,” states Ryan. In the report, the researchers write, “We have no easy or simple solutions … and we continue to grapple with it.”

Ryan and Sahakyan suggest that large variability in LTEL rates across states could result in part from different state policies and, at the district and school levels, variable policy implementation. They hope the findings will encourage state policymakers to look more closely at their own data to better understand the LTEL population in their respective states, and to explore how and why the size of this population varies across districts.

In the end, it is about accountability to students and their families, says Ryan. “Federal legislation dictates that states have an obligation to ensure that English-learner students are successful in school, college and society,” and she notes that WIDA researchers are ready to work with educators and policymakers to help them achieve that goal.