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Graduation Rates on ELLs a Mystery

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 08, 2009 9 min read
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Across the country, high school graduation rates are bemoaned with regularity. But many states and districts aren’t even tracking the rate for the fastest-growing population of students, or if they are, they aren’t telling the public how many English-language learners are leaving school with a diploma.

The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to rectify that. Now, nearly eight years after its passage, 13 states and numerous districts still don’t report that information to the public or the U.S. Department of Education. And some of those that do are offering numbers that may not be entirely accurate.

“The previous administration didn’t do enough to get absolute clarity from states about when they would be able to report their graduation rates for English-language learners,” said Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy development for the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates high academic standards, especially for disadvantaged students. “There has been this notion of, ‘We’re working on it. We’re working on it,’ ” she said.

The NCLB law specifies that states must report graduation rates for subgroups of students, including ELLs, in their report cards. Subsequent Education Department regulations make clear that school districts must do so as well.

GRADUATION RATES 2006-07

BRIC ARCHIVE

Note: Thirteen states did not report data.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Newer regulations, released last October, may force states and districts to be more transparent about the rates, and, at least in theory, put more effort into helping English-learners through school. The new rules require that schools and districts be judged on their graduation rates overall and by subgroup, including ELLs, to determine whether they’ve met goals for adequate yearly progress, beginning with the 2011-12 school year.

The population of English-language learners in the United States has been expanding. As a result, some education experts say that school officials and policymakers must pay attention to the graduation rate for all such students, not just Latinos. About 75 percent of ELLs are Latino.

But others contend that the rate for ELLs doesn’t mean that much. What’s paramount in their view is to find out whether students are acquiring English, and then how well they perform academically during the two or three years after they leave special language-learning programs.

“English-language learners are a special population that has its own challenges that are distinct from Latinos’,” said Russell W. Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Not all Latinos are ELLs, and not all ELLs are Latinos.” Districts and states must report and be held accountable for a graduation rate for English-learners, he said, because measuring such students’ performance based solely on their scores on state mathematics and reading tests is insufficient.

A national dialogue about ELL graduation rates needs to take place, said Deborah J. Short, a senior research associate at the Washington-based Center for Applied Linguistics. “Certainly we have seen an increase in dropout rates among these students in large cities, but we don’t have a sense of which districts are keeping ELLs in school and moving them to graduation and how,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Echoing that sentiment is Steven Ross, the director of programs for English-learners for the Nevada education department. While he’s seen the topic discussed in education publications, “in the ELL circles, I’ve heard very little, to be honest.”

But others believe it’s more important for policymakers and educators to pay attention to the rate at which English-learners are reclassified as English-fluent, and how well they do once they exit special programs to learn English, than to examine the graduation rate.

Margaret Garcia Dugan, the deputy superintendent of the Arizona education department, said she doesn’t focus on the four-year ELL graduation rate for her state—46 percent for the 2006-07 school year—because she doesn’t expect all English-learners to graduate within four years.

“If you can’t speak English fluently, for us to give a diploma doesn’t make any sense,” she said.

Unknown in L.A.

Some states have policies that stress ELL graduation rates; others do not. In New York and Texas, for example, such rates at the state and district levels have been made public for years.

As a result, educators in systems such as the 1 million-student New York City district, where the ELL graduation rate is 35.8 percent, and the 200,000-student Houston district, where it is 22.6 percent, have been examining the issue and implementing interventions to try to improve the rate.

By contrast, California, among others, reports an ELL graduation rate to the federal government based on information it receives from school districts, but doesn’t require them to calculate a rate or include it in their report cards to the public. The same is true in Wisconsin.

Officials from the 688,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, which has the most English-learners of any school system in the nation, didn’t fulfill a request by Education Week to provide an ELL graduation rate, noting that they don’t break out data that way.

The Milwaukee school system provided Education Week with an ELL graduation rate for the 2007-08 school year that the state had calculated. Sixty-seven percent of English-learners earned a diploma, compared with 68 percent of all students. But Deb Lindsey, the director of research and assessment for Milwaukee, referred a reporter to the state for an explanation of what is behind the numbers, indicating that the rate isn’t really a point of discussion in the 87,000-student district.

What’s in a Number?

Mr. Rumberger, who specializes in high school graduation rates, said researchers haven’t yet had a national discussion about how the rate should be calculated. They haven’t discussed, for example, how to take into account the temporary status of ELLs.

Education officials in Arizona, California, and Texas confirmed that their ELL graduation rates exclude those who become proficient in English over the course of their high school years.

The graduation rate should, by definition, include only those categorized at the time as English-learners, Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the federal Education Department, wrote in an e-mail.

But Mr. Rumberger asked if the rate shouldn’t also take into account former ELLs or all students who speak a language other than English at home.

“The whole thing about excluding those who leave the category is that you’re stuck with the ones most at risk,” he said. “What you don’t want to do is give incentives for not reclassifying students.”

Graduation rates in some states, such as California, are overstated, Mr. Rumberger said, and thus the number of ELL graduates would be overstated as well.

Some of the 13 states that didn’t submit ELL graduation rates for 2006-07—the latest available data—to the federal government, don’t yet have the capacity to do so, said Mr. Bradshaw. That’s the case, at least, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Tennessee, he said.

An education official from Nevada confirmed that’s also the situation in that state. And Louisiana, in fact, reported no graduation rates.

New Jersey has switched to a data system that will enable it to report a graduation rate for ELLs for the 2010-11 school year, said Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the New Jersey education department. He said federal officials “are aware of our timeline, and they’re OK with it.”

District administrators in Houston and New York City credit various interventions with raising their ELL graduation rates a notch.

In Houston, the graduation rate for English-language learners increased from 15.4 percent for the class of 2007 to 22.6 percent for the class of 2008. The overall graduation rate for the class of 2008 was 68.2 percent. As is true for the Texas rate, the Houston rate excludes students who became fluent in English and moved out of the category in high school.

“We’d like to see all our kids graduate,” said Mark A. White, the director of the student-engagement department for the Houston public schools. He is among the district’s staff members focusing on ELL graduation rates. “Realistically,” he said, “it’s very difficult when you get an 18- or 19-year-old checking into 9th grade with zero English.”

Mr. White believes the district raised the ELL graduation rate in part by focusing on interventions that match students’ individual needs. “Our new method is trying to make sure we’re sitting there and discussing each individual kid,” he said.

In New York City, the ELL graduation rate increased from 25.1 percent for the class of 2007 to 35.8 percent for the class of 2008. For all students in the class of 2008, the rate was 56.4 percent.

“We are very cognizant that for many of the students, it takes double or even triple the work [compared with regular students] to graduate,” said Maria Santos, who directs English-learner programs in the New York district.

A strong push to provide professional development to mainstream teachers on how to work with English-learners is one of the factors that have helped increase the ELL graduation rate, Ms. Santos said. In addition, she said, the city has put in place a funding formula that has helped ELLs because it targets money for them and charges schools with spending that money on those students.

Ms. Santos also credits some of the small schools in the city that have a mission to serve English-learners as helping to improve the city’s overall ELL graduation rate.

Diploma Not Enough

Among those small schools are 10 that are part of the Internationals Network for Public Schools. They enroll ELLs who have been in the country for less than four years. The average graduation rate for the seven graduating classes from those schools was 73 percent in the 2007-08 school year—higher than the city’s overall rate. And many students stay in school and receive a diploma after an additional year or two.

The four-year rate includes students who were English-learners in 9th grade but became proficient in English and left the category, while the citywide ELL graduation rate excludes such students.

Claire Sylvan, the executive director and president of the network, believes the group has devised a school model that works to usher English-learners to graduation. “That includes the pedagogical approach and organizational structure that create small teams of teachers who are well trained, interdisciplinary, and take the full responsibility for the academic, linguistic, and overall development of their students,” she said.

Simply ensuring that a student graduates from high school is not enough, Ms. Sylvan said.

“The question isn’t merely what are you doing to graduate, but are you being prepared to participate as a productive member in a democratic society. When you look at graduation rates,” she said, “if you don’t speak to that question, I don’t think you’re doing kids a service.”

Coverage of efforts to promote new routes to college and career success is supported by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as ELL Graduation Rates Often a Mystery

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