Equity & Diversity

English-Learner Graduation Rates Rise Nationally, But Lag in Several States

By Corey Mitchell — December 19, 2017 2 min read
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The graduation rate for the nation’s English-language learners in the class of 2016 rose to 66.9 percent, a 4 percentage point increase over the past two years, according to data released this month by the U.S. Department of Education.

The data for four-year graduation rates, which includes some students who were once classified as English-learners, stood at 62.6 percent two years ago.

But those graduation rates vary widely from state to state. In California, the state with the largest K-12 ELL enrollment, 72 percent of English-learners graduated high school in four years. That marks a nearly 11 percent increase over the past two years.

In Texas, which has the nation’s second-largest K-12 ELL enrollment, about 74 percent of ELL high school students graduated on time.

Florida, the state with the third-largest population, also saw an uptick in its graduation rate, rising to 62 percent. Just two years ago, the graduation rate was 55.8 percent. That’s an 11 percent increase.

Some states produced even better results, albeit with smaller ELL populations. West Virginia, where less than 2 percent of students are English-learners, had the largest percentage of ELLs graduate on time with 93 percent. Arkansas and Iowa, two states with relatively small populations, also had graduation rates that topped 80 percent.

But in Arizona, which has the 11th highest ELL enrollment in the nation, less than a third of students, roughly 32 percent, graduated within four years.

Besides Arizona, there were five other states —Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New York, and Virginia —that had fewer than 50 percent of their ELLs graduate within four years. New York has the nation’s third-largest K-12 ELL population.

Some English-learner students, especially those who first enroll in U.S. schools at the middle or high school levels, often take more time to earn diplomas. Those students, commonly known as long-term English-language learners, must learn English while meeting graduation requirements that demand a firm grasp of the language. Schools could soon have a better handle on who these students are and what they need to succeed. The new Every Student Succeeds Act requires states and districts to report on the number of ELLs who attended schools in districts for five years or more without being reclassified as proficient in English.

Differences in state policy make it tough for researchers to determine why the numbers are on the rise nationally, Lucrecia Santibanez, an associate professor of teaching, learning, and culture in the school of educational studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, told Education Week earlier this month.

Scholars and advocates also expressed concern that some states have lowered their graduation standards for ELLs, pushing students out the door who are unprepared to tackle college coursework or find jobs.

In 2018, Education Week plans to take a closer look at what’s behind the numbers, including examining the strategies some states use to ensure that more English-learners earn high school diplomas. For now, here’s a state-by-state look at the 2016 graduation rates:

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