College & Workforce Readiness

English-Learners and Graduation: How ESSA Could Penalize ELLs and Their Schools

By Corey Mitchell — April 29, 2019 2 min read
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The nation’s federal K-12 law may be penalizing older English-language learners and the schools that educate them, a new report from the Migration Policy Institute argues.

By making four-year graduation rates such a prominent part of school accountability plans, the Every Student Succeeds Act could lead administrators in traditional high schools to turn away older English-learner students who may need additional time to earn their high school diplomas, posits Julie Sugarman, a senior policy analyst with the institute and the report’s author.

The report from the institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy also examines why high-school age English-learners drop out of school, how graduation rates are calculated, and how a heavy emphasis on graduation rates can affect how schools design instructional programs for English-learners.

While federal law has helped close opportunity gaps for English-learners by requiring schools to document and publicly report on their educational progress, ESSA could “disproportionately categorize English-learners as failures or, more concerningly, incentivize schools to push such students into inappropriate educational pathways or not to serve them at all, for fear of the consequences attached to being labeled as a school in need of improvement,” Sugarman writes.

Schools Struggle to Meet Needs of Older English-Learners

School districts have struggled to meet the educational needs of older English-learners, including refugee and immigrant students who often have gaps in their formal education and may suffer from emotional trauma. Despite laws that allow young people to enroll in traditional public schools until they reach age 20 or 21, some high schools have barred older immigrant and refugee students, kept them out of class for months, or sought to enroll them in alternative education.

Under ESSA, states must submit school accountability plans that include data from districts on four-year graduation rates. While states can supplement their calculation of the four-year graduation rate with an extended-year rate, 16 states and the District of Columbia have chosen not to, the report finds.

Altogether, those states serve about 60 percent of the nation’s estimated 5 million English-learners.

Here’s a look at the report.

Related Reading

Report: Deportation Fear Grips Immigrant and Refugee Students in U.S. Schools

Helping Newcomer English-Learners Earn High School Diplomas

What Can Educators Do to Increase Graduation Rates for English-Learners?

Older ELLS Can Face Restricted Learning Opportunities

For Stalled ELL Students, Graduation Is Often an Elusive Goal

Image Credit: Students in the District of Columbia’s International Academy at Cardozo Education Campus, immigrants from Central America and Asia, work on an assignment in history class.
--Greg Kahn for Education Week

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