English-Language Learners

Most States Don’t Offer Districts Guidance for Enrolling Students New to the U.S.

By Ileana Najarro — October 30, 2023 4 min read
English learner students in Jeremy True's class work on a reading assignment on Nov. 10, 2022, in Mason City, Iowa.
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When Alejandra Vázquez Baur was an algebra teacher, she had immigrant students who had only studied elementary-level math, due to interruptions to their education. Other immigrant students in her algebra class had already taken trigonometry.

Districts often create their own guidance for how to avoid such mismatches in course placement and ensure newcomer students get the right support they need as they navigate a new country. But state education agencies can and should offer guidance and resources for districts under their jurisdiction to ensure equitable practices are followed across the state, said Vázquez Baur, a fellow at The Century Foundation and most recently a policy entrepreneur at the progressive think tank Next100.

“In education, there’s so much focus on localization and I think that’s important for a number of reasons. However, when it comes to equity, we know that upholding equity requires more strategic planning and accountability,” Vázquez Baur said.

In a new co-authored report, Vázquez Baur found that less than half of state education agencies are requiring or recommending that districts review prior schooling experiences when enrolling newcomers who recently arrived to the United States and even fewer are providing specific guidance, resources, and support to help local district staff implement standardized enrollment procedures.

“That first interaction with schools sets the tone for whether [newcomer] students will stay in school and have access to quality coursework and be able to succeed in the way that they see fit for them,” Vázquez Baur said.

There’s little uniformity across and within states when enrolling newcomers

In reviewing publicly available state resources, Vázquez Baur and co-author Manuel Vazquez Cano found that only 21 states and the District of Columbia included language in guidance documents that explicitly directed districts to collect information from newcomers about their prior academic experiences during the enrollment process.

While there isn’t proof in research that such a practice results in better test scores or better academic outcomes, Vázquez Baur said that anecdotally it’s better to ensure students get the support they need from the very start rather than waiting to course-correct later.

Julie Sugarman, the associate director for K-12 education research at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, isn’t surprised by the inconsistency in terms of what states offer for newcomer enrollment guidance.

The report even acknowledges that creating statewide guidance and resources for how to correctly place newly enrolled newcomer students isn’t a requirement in the same way the Every Students Succeeds Act of 2015 requires state education agencies to provide districts with standardized guidance for identifying students who may need English language development support.

“Unlike something like English-language-learner identification, this is not something that can really be sort of a one-size-fits-all solution,” Sugarman said.

Many districts might be too quick to place newcomer students into a grade appropriate for their age without reviewing prior education, Sugarman said. Sometimes it may be a matter of districts being too overwhelmed to set up a formal review process—especially as not all newcomer students even have access to a transcript.

In fact, some state education agencies may be too overwhelmed to set up dedicated resources for guiding districts in appropriate newcomer enrollment practices, including offering transcript translation reviews, Sugarman said.

“One of the issues is that state English learner offices are extraordinarily understaffed,” she said. “And some of them are really so focused on just meeting the basic qualifications or the basic things that they absolutely have to do by law.”

Yet state education agencies are uniquely positioned to be the most helpful hub of information as more newcomer students enroll in districts that historically may not have enrolled these students in the past, Sugarman added.

In the last two years alone, more than 100,000 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors in the United States, she added.

There are local and state-level solutions already in play

Still, there are several states that have come up with a variety of solutions.

Indiana officials, for instance, created a process for incorporating the perspectives of a variety of stakeholders in the development of newcomer enrollment guidance. The Colorado Department of Education built its guidance around the Denver Public Schools’ credit reporting guidelines.

In analyzing various state approaches, Vázquez Baur and her co-author compiled the following recommendations for state education agencies:

  • Include template questionnaires, screeners, assessments, and other tools to assess prior knowledge that districts can adapt to various contexts and experiences. In creating such tools, be sure to use asset-based language that considers the assets multilingual students possess.
  • Build internal capacity within a state education agency to offer a hub of resources, personnel who can clarify information, and training for districts and local evaluations to ensure state guidance is followed appropriately.
  • Identify and elevate promising practices from districts and schools within a given state, and incorporate perspectives from a variety of stakeholders in the development of state-level guidance, including the perspective of immigrant students’ families.

“There’s a lot of great work happening everywhere, especially in many of the states that do not have state-level guidance,” Vázquez Baur said. “It’s important that state education agencies start to take responsibility for upholding educational equity across the board in districts that serve many newcomers or districts that have never served a newcomer before.”

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