English-Language Learners

What’s Behind Rising Graduation Rates for English-Learners and Native-American Students?

By Corey Mitchell — December 07, 2017 4 min read
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While graduation rates for English-language learners and Native American students are on the rise, educators and researchers are still questioning whether the needs of those students are being better served in the nation’s K-12 schools.

The nation’s four-year graduation rate for English-language learners has improved 10 percentage points over the past five years, rising to 65.5 percent.

On the surface, some states seem to be doing a better job than others of helping ELLs earn high school diplomas. Arkansas, Iowa, and West Virginia—all states with relatively small populations of English-learners—had graduation rates that topped 80 percent.

But a number of states fell well below the national average, including six that had less than half of their ELL students graduate on time. That group includes New York, which has the fourth highest ELL enrollment in the nation.

In California, the state with the largest K-12 ELL enrollment, 72 percent of English-learners in the class of 2016 graduated in four years. That marks a seven percent increase over the past two years.

Even with the national gains, the percentage of ELLs graduating high school within four years still trails most other subgroups, including students from low-income families.

“Improving graduation rates on the whole is a good thing,” said Lucrecia Santibanez, an associate professor of teaching, learning, and culture in the school of educational studies at Claremont Graduate University in California whose research interests include ELLs and bilingual education.

Wide variations in state policy make it tough for researchers to determine why the numbers are on the rise nationally, Santibanez said.

She also worries that state-level changes in defining who is an ELL, which in many states includes students who were formerly classified as English-learners, could artificially inflate graduation rates, and perhaps leave an impression that the needs of more students are being met.

The improvements came as the rights of English-learners emerged as a significant policy issue for the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice during President Obama’s administration.

As the number of ELLs in K-12 schools increased, the departments issued joint guidance to remind public schools of their obligations to ensure such students have equal access to a high-quality education.

The guidance, along with stringent enforcement of federal law by the education department’s office for civil rights, likely served as reminders that schools must educate ELLs, said Diane August, who directs the Center for English Language Learners at the American Institutes for Research.

“It probably put a lot of districts on notice that you really are accountable for educating these kids,” August said.

How that holds up remains to be seen. The prospect that the Trump administration will roll back the federal role in education civil rights enforcement has many advocates on edge after nearly eight years of attention to such issues under President Barack Obama.

Improvements in Indian Country

While Native American high school graduation rates have increased by seven percent in the past five years, the numbers remain “problematic,” said Susan Faircloth, a professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and an enrolled member of the Coharie Tribe.

Despite the increases, Native American students still have the lowest performance among ethnic and racial subgroups, and the graduation rates in Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota, all states with sizable American Indian populations, continue to lag behind the national average.

Faircloth also questioned if the improved graduation rates have concealed another problem: students who drop out of school before they factor into graduation rates.

The Obama administration devoted more resources to Indian Country, including the Generation Indigenous (Gen I) initiative, a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Education and the Department of the Interior that sought to address barriers to success for Native American youth.

To support that effort, the federal government also awarded more money to tribes, schools, and other organizations under the belief they’re best equipped to identify key barriers to and opportunities for improving educational and life outcomes for Native students. The efforts focused on improving preschool, adding Native language instruction and immersion programs, and providing more mental health services.

“You saw a recognition across the country on the value of culturally based education. This isn’t anything different in Indian Country than it is in Hispanic communities or African-American communities,” said Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the National Indian Education Association.

“When we have parents and community members that are engaged in education ... we’re going to see students flourish.”

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