School & District Management

English-Learner Achievement Mixed in Big City School Systems

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 22, 2013 3 min read
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The experiences of English-language learners in some of the nation’s largest school systems vary widely when it comes to who teaches them, what types of language instruction programs are available to them, and how well schools do in supporting their progress toward becoming proficient in English.

In what may be the most comprehensive data collection to date on ELLs in urban school systems, the Council of the Great City Schools undertook an extensive survey of its member districts to capture a more complete picture of who these students are, how schools support them, and how they are performing. The full report is titled, “English-Language Learners in America’s Great City Schools: Demographics, Achievement, and Staffing.” The survey was done last year, when the Council had 65 members. It now has 67 members.

It’s hard to know where to start in this meaty report, which, at the outset, acknowledges the difficulty in pinning down exactly how many ELLs are enrolled in the nation’s public schools and the wide variation in numbers that get cited. In general, most estimates are around 5 million ELLs. Nearly one quarter of those students attend schools in a Council district.

I flipped right to the achievement section, which starts by breaking down, by district, how ELLs performed on annual language proficiency exams in the 2009-10 school year. Students take a wide array of proficiency tests, depending on which state they live in, making direct comparisons impossible.

Still, the results—which capture how students are progressing toward learning the language—were all over the map. In one district, for example, 68 percent of ELLs in grades K-5 scored at the lowest level of English-language proficiency and fewer than 5 percent scored at the highest level. In another district, the results were almost reversed: Nearly 55 percent of ELLs in grades K-5 scored at the highest level of proficiency while fewer than 5 percent scored at the lowest. None of the districts is named, but 37 of them reported their proficiency results by grade level in the survey. Most of the other districts fell somewhere between those two, with a more even distribution of performance across proficiency levels at all grade levels.

The report also highlights the gaps in achievement growth between ELLs and their non-ELL peers on the reading and math portions of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. Between 2005-2011, for example, the scores of non-ELLs on both the reading and math NAEP grew steadily, but ELL scores were largely stuck in the same place as six years earlier.

One promising data point, however, was the growth demonstrated by students who were former English-learners. In the same six-year time period, former ELLs scored at or above proficient levels at nearly the same rates as their non-ELL peers in fourth grade reading and math.

The survey also showed that English-language learners were less likely to be enrolled in districts’ gifted and talented programs than their non-ELL peers, and less likely to have successfully completed Algebra I in 8th or 9th grade, which is widely considered a gateway course for college eligibility and enrollment.

As you dig into the report, you’ll find all kinds of information about how districts hire staff to work with ELLs, how much, if at all, they take ELL outcomes into account for evaluations of general education teachers who have ELLs in their classrooms, and how they spend their federal Title III money.

While not all Council districts responded to the survey, most did, and those with the largest ELL populations—Los Angeles and New York City—are represented.

The Council concludes that while there are pockets of promise, there is a great deal of improvement to do on behalf of English-learners if they are to catch up to their non-ELL peers, especially as the more demanding common core standards and assessments begin to roll out.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.