States Classify Long-Term English Learners Very Differently

Variations abound in state classification of long-term English learners (LTELs).
The
broadest study ever undertaken of
long-term English learners (LTELs) in U.S. public schools underscores the need
to better understand how students receive this classification, and why the
classification varies widely across and within states.
Since LTEL status may negatively impact future educational opportunities and outcomes, the study recommends a much closer examination of how LTELs are classified across the U.S. which could impact English learner master plans.
Experts on
multilingual learners at the University of Wisconsin–Madison conducted the
nearly year-long study by using population data from 15 states that track
students who remain classified as English learners for five or more years. They
found the population of LTEL students varies from two to 24% across the states
studied.
“Currently,
one in five students in the U.S. comes from a home in which a language other
than English is spoken, and English learners are the fastest growing subgroup
of K-12 students in the country,” says Sarah Ryan, director of Research,
Policy, and Evaluation for WIDA.
According
to Ryan, WIDA is in a unique position to conduct longitudinal research on
language learners, “We have exclusive access to data on the entire population
of young language learners in most U.S. states, which no other organization has
collected. And we have an opportunity and responsibility to use the data in
ways that lead to greater equity for multilingual children and youth.”
While
previous research has focused on LTEL populations in primarily Arizona,
California, New York, and Texas, Ryan and her colleague, Narek Sahakyan, wanted
to better understand this population nationally.
LTELs are defined as English-language learners who have not yet
reached a minimum threshold of English-language proficiency after five to seven
years in a U.S. school. The researchers defined
a common “minimum threshold” as a composite proficiency level of 4.5 on the ACCESS
for ELLs English-language proficiency assessment to
identify potential LTELs. It is the lowest threshold used to reclassify
students as fully English-proficient between 2009-10 and 2014-15, the study’s
timeframe.
“Each
state sets its own threshold of ACCESS scores required for reclassification, so
what it means to be a LTEL varies from state to state,” explains Sahakyan. “Early estimates claim as many as
one-quarter to one-half of ELs would become classified as LTELs, but we really
had no data from other states to back that up. Our study addresses this gap.”
He adds: “The rates of potential LTELs we uncovered may
underestimate the size of this population since about 20% of students in the
study discontinued participation in the ACCESS assessment before meeting state
criteria for reclassification. We suspect that many of these students moved out
of the state or country.”
Reclassification is key because it can serve as a gatekeeper
to more advanced courses and learning opportunities, especially when EL
students reach middle and high school. Often, when English-learner students
reach the secondary level, they are clustered together into separate courses.
“So instead of taking biology in 10th grade, ELs
might take ‘sheltered biology.’ And a sheltered version of a class does not
usually offer college-preparatory credit,” warns Sahakyan, pointing out that
taking a non-college-tracked course in high school could result in missed
learning opportunities that will have an impact on future educational and
economic success.
In their report, Ryan and Sahakyan point to the dilemma for
education researchers and practitioners in identifying and examining LTELs as a
subgroup, while knowing that labels can be stigmatizing to students.
“The process of labeling a subgroup of students as LTELs can
perpetuate the inequity we aim to address. 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,” explains Ryan. In the report,
the researchers write, “We have no easy or simple solutions … and we continue
to grapple with it.”
Ryan and
Sahakyan suggest that large variability in LTEL rates across states could
result in part from different state policies and, at the district and school
levels, variable policy implementation. They hope the findings will encourage
state policymakers to look more
closely at their own data to better understand the LTEL population in their
respective states, and to explore how and why the size of this population
varies across districts.
In the end, it is about accountability to students and their
families, says Ryan. “Federal legislation dictates that states have an obligation
to ensure that English-learner students are successful in school, college and
society.”


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