English-Language Learners

What Graduation Rates for English Learners Look Like

By Ileana Najarro — July 07, 2023 2 min read
Tight cropped photo of blue mortarboard and yellow tassel shot on blue graduation gown.
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English learners’ four-year graduation rates have risen over the past decade, but they still lag behind the rest of their peers, according to newly released federal data.

The new graduation rate percentages are from the 2019-20 school year. While national English learner rates have grown since the 2010-11 school year, up to about 71 percent, they still lag behind the overall rate of 86 percent.

Some of that overall growth for English learners may be attributed to improved data collection, said Leslie Villegas, a senior policy analyst with the left leaning think tank New America.

She also pointed out that the new federal data don’t include graduation rates statistics from Texas—a state with one of the largest English learner populations in the country—and states tend to vary in how they calculate English learners’ four-year graduation rates.

For more on how each state fared in 2019-20 regarding English learners’ graduation rates, see the map below.

Further improvements in accurate tracking of graduation rates for English learners could involve incorporating those who graduate within a five or six-year timeline, such as late arrival immigrant students, into school accountability in a positive way, Villegas said, understanding that it’s good to reach graduation even if on a longer timeline.

Other students who tend to take longer than four years to graduate are those known as long-term English learners, who were likely classified early in their K-12 career but remain under the English learner classification in high school.

Long-term English learners tend to be proficient in English, but are unable to demonstrate that proficiency on a test, said Lucrecia Santibañez, a professor at the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies.

Research has found and federal data show that these students are not getting access to mainstream rigorous instruction in English/language arts and math, and instead are spending more time in English language development classes, Santibañez added.

For instance, English learners were three times less likely than non-English learner peers to be enrolled in AP courses when offered by their schools; two times less likely to be enrolled in International Baccalaureate courses; and three times less likely to be enrolled in dual enrollment courses, according to 2017-18 federal data.

“The view is that these courses are going to be too hard,” Santibañez said.

Without access to these courses, and better engagement overall in core academic classes, long-term English learners can fall off the track toward graduation and higher education, she added.

Other policy considerations researchers have looked to include the impact immigration policies can have on English learners in households of mixed legal status by derailing future planning if there are concerns of deportations in the family for example, Santibañez said.

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