After finding a wide difference across states, researchers at the University of Wisconsin are recommending more research be done on how students are classified as “long-term English learners” — those who haven’t reached proficiency in the language after at least five years in a U.S. school.
“The rates of the students — English learners who could be identified as LTELs using the rules that we did — were highly variable across the states,” said Narek Sahakyan, who worked on the nearly yearlong WIDA study. He is a researcher for WIDA, an educational consortium of states headquartered at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in Madison.
By examining 170,000 English learners’ data across 15 states from 2009-2015, the study found the population of long-term English learners ranged from 2% to 24%, according to a news release.
Part of that can be attributed to states varying on what threshold students have to meet before they are no longer considered English learners — but Sahakyan said the wide range persisted at the district level and across states even when grouping by reclassification criteria.
Though he declined to say whether Wisconsin was included in the study, he said the state has one of the highest thresholds for reclassifying students, meaning more would likely continue as ELs for longer compared to other states with a lower bar. States were included based on data availability and consent, Sahakyan said.
The researchers noted that being classified as a long-term English learner could prevent a student from getting into more advanced courses, limiting their learning opportunities and possibly impacting their future success. The label itself “can be stigmatizing to students,” the release said.
“The process of labeling a subgroup of students as LTELs can perpetuate the inequity we aim to address,” Sarah Ryan, director of research, policy and evaluation for WIDA, said in the release. “Yet, by not using this terminology, we might silence growing and necessary attention focused on meeting the needs of these students, which are often overlooked.”
Varying definitions of long-term English learners as determined by states and districts also means that the label could be applied to a student in one place but not another, Sahakyan wrote in an email.
“An EL student could be identified as either potentially proficient or an LTEL, depending on where she is going to school, or what other circumstances surround her, sometimes with little regard of her actual linguistic proficiency,” he wrote. “It is up to the public education system to figure out how to better serve these children better, and shining a light on the issue is but the first step in making this happen.”
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction doesn’t publicly release the number of long-term English learners in each school district, but it does report English learners. In 2009-10, Baraboo School District had 84 ELs and Portage had 69. By the last year the researchers examined, Baraboo dipped to 67 English learners and Portage dropped to 40.
English learners are the fastest growing subgroup of K-12 students in the country, according to the UW-Madison researchers.
But, the study also found, they tend to be a mobile population. Many of the students whose data was studied stopped taking the test used to determine English learner status before reaching English proficiency, suggesting they may have moved out of the state or country.
Another key finding showed what Sahakyan referred to as “a striking overlap” between students with individualized education programs — usually due to a learning or cognitive disability — and those who could be long-term English learners, complicating their needs from schools.
DPI data reflects an academic achievement gap between English learner students and non-English learner students. Sahakyan noted the difficulty of measuring an improvement in that gap when the cohort is “ever-changing” — a student who becomes proficient, by definition, would no longer be included in a district’s reported English learner population.
“While the reasons for the existence and persistence of these gaps are complex, deeply-rooted, and in some cases misunderstood, there is ample evidence to suggest that American schools are not meeting the needs of many English Learner students,” he wrote. “The presence of high rates of Long-term English learners, who are among the most vulnerable of this already at-risk student population, is perhaps the most tangible symptom of a defunct educational system.”