English-Language Learners

Itinerant English-Learners Pose Challenges for School Systems

By Corey Mitchell — May 23, 2019 3 min read
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A new 15-state analysis found that 1 in 5 English-learners move so frequently or so far that schools and state education agencies are unable to track them over the course of their academic careers, placing the students at greater risk of struggling in school.

The revelation is one of the key findings of new research from the WIDA Consortium, a group of nearly 40 state education agencies that share English-language-proficiency standards and assessment for ELLs.

The study sought to examine learning conditions across the country for long-term English-learners, those students who are not considered proficient in English after being educated in U.S. schools for five to seven years.

Between the 2009-10 and 2014-15 school years, 20 percent of English-learners in the study cohort either moved to another state, left the country, or dropped out of school altogether, making them almost impossible to track, the researchers found.

Overall, research has linked high student mobility to lower school engagement, reading struggles, and increased risk of high school dropout.

Those students who cross state lines often face inconsistent state reclassification criteria and district implementation strategies that could leave them labeled as a long-term English-learner in one state and English-proficient in another. That also means they may not have had the opportunity to benefit from consistent language support. Overall, research has linked high mobility among all students, not just English-learners, to lower school engagement, reading struggles, and increased risk of high school dropout.

Across the nation, long-term English-learners are a group with a growing significance and presence for school systems: Research suggests that more than 1 in 4 English-learners will remain classified as ELs for six years or more.

“They are the most vulnerable population of the most marginalized population,” said Narek Sahakyan, the study co-author and an associate researcher in the WIDA research, policy, and evaluation department. “These are usually the kids who are swept under the rug. They need our attention the most.”

The students often can communicate in English, but have yet to master academic language—the sort of subject-area-specific vocabulary that can help them solve story problems in math class or grasp science concepts. In some districts, including Los Angeles Unified, long-term English-learners are a majority of the English-learner population.

The WIDA study also found that native Spanish-speaking children and students with individualized education plans in the cohort were more likely to be identified as long-term English-learners than their peers who are also learning the language.

Sixteen percent of Hispanic students were identified as potential long-term English-learners, making them twice as likely to be tagged with the designation as their white and Asian English-learner peers.

The study also found significant overlap between students’ disability status and long-term English-learner potential: Among students with IEPs, 45 percent were identified as potential long-term English-learners. The same was only true of 10 percent of English-learners who never had IEPs.

Being identified as a long-term English-learner or even a potential long-term EL can have implications for what and how students are taught. English-learners are often denied full access to STEM education, take fewer advanced and college-preparatory classes, and are most often immersed in coursework that focuses on basic skills instead of lessons centered on problem-solving or critical thinking.

Here’s a look at the report.

Related Reading

Thousands of English-Learners Fall Short on Test of Language Skills

As ELL Tests Move Online, Educators Hope for Better Gauge of Skills

Teaching America’s English-Language Learners: A Special Report

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