English Learners

The English-Learner Student Population, in Charts

By Ileana Najarro — June 19, 2024 3 min read
Two students in a combined second- and third-grade class read together.
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English learners accounted for 10.6 percent of all public school students in fall 2021, up from 9.4 percent in fall 2011.

That’s according to federal data updated in May which tracks this student population’s growth over time and other statistics of note including English learners’ racial/ethnic identities, home languages, and English learners identified as students with disabilities.

Data on the percentage of students that were English learners in fall 2021 by state shows how this population of students has grown in parts of the country not historically associated with large numbers of English-learner students.

Oklahoma, for instance, now outpaces Arizona in terms of the percentage of English learners in the state, said Amaya Garcia, director of PK–12 research and practice at the think tank New America. It can speak to migration patterns in general, where families can afford to live, and where families can find work, she said.

It’s important for policymakers to pay attention to these trends and to consider how they’re incorporating the needs of English learners into decisions around funding and instructional practices, Garcia added.

For instance, policymakers need to assess whether all students are receiving language services, and whether these services are based on research.

Some states, including Georgia, Illinois, Wyoming, and Vermont, saw big declines in the percentage of English learners receiving services in English-language instruction between 2019 and 2021. (This time period overlaps with the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Percentage of English learners (ELs) receiving services in English language instruction educational programs (LIEPs), by state or jurisdiction: Fall 2021

Updated federal data show that Spanish remains the dominant home language among English learners in the country, followed by Arabic, and English. In the case of English being a dominant language, researchers note that these students may “live in multilingual households or students adopted from other countries who were raised speaking another language but currently live in households where English is spoken.”

Hispanic English learners remained the predominant racial/ethnic group within the national English-learner population in fall 2021 at 77.9 percent.

According to new data analysis from WIDA, Hispanic English learners’ English language proficiency scores on the ACCESS test administered in close to 40 states remain lower than those of non-Hispanic English learners.

More English learners overall were enrolled in younger grades (K-5th) in fall 2021. Much research and overall conversation around English learners tends to focus on students in younger grades, Garcia said.

That focus is largely due to the idea that earlier reclassification for these students can lead to strong outcomes in their future.

But while older English learners make up a smaller piece of the total English-learner population, their needs tend to be much higher, Garcia added.

English learners are not homogenous even within subgroups. Some may be immigrant students, some may have been receiving English language support for six or seven years, known as long-term English learners. Some immigrant students might be unaccompanied minors. Some immigrant students’ families studied English in their home countries and moved to the U.S. to continue their education, Garcia said.

“Even if they all speak Spanish, that doesn’t mean that they all have the same kinds of backgrounds or kinds of needs,” Garcia added.

According to updated federal data, English learners who were also identified as students with disabilities in fall 2021 represented 15.8 percent of the total English-learner enrollment. Overall, students with disabilities represented 14.7 percent of total public school enrollment that same year.

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