June 6, 2007

How Far Behind in Math and Reading are English Language Learners?

II. Introduction

ELL students are generally not educated in the same public schools as other students. Almost 70% of elementary ELL students attended 5,000 schools (out of 50,000 elementary schools nationwide). These same schools educated fewer than 8% of the elementary students who were not English language learners (Cosentino de Cohen, et.al., 2005)

Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), states are required to ensure that all public school students meet standards of proficiency in math and reading by 2014, and levels of achievement must be measured separately for several categories of students, including those designated as English Language Learner (ELL) students. To meet that mandate states and districts and schools will presumably need to focus attention and resources on the student groups that are farthest from meeting standards.

Congress is due to reauthorize the basic legislation underlying NCLB, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, this year, and dozens of bills have been introduced to modify its provisions. Many address the ways that achievement is measured for students in the English language learner (ELL) category, the standards that schools and states need to meet for these students as well as the assistance and the sanctions that come into play when those standards are not accomplished.

The gaps in achievement between black and Hispanic students and white students are well-known, long-standing, and widely researched (see, for example, Jencks and Phillips, 1998). NCLB designated English language learner (ELL) students as a distinct group for the reporting of state test results and required that the ELL achievement gap also be closed.

Using publicly available data on achievement in math and reading at the national and state levels, this report examines the performance of ELL students compared to white, Hispanic, and black students.2 The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and as well as assessments undertaken by individual states under NCLB requirements reveal that ELL students are achieving less than their black and Hispanic peers and are far behind their white peers in most states.3

The education of ELL students is important for reasons aside from the federal push to raise academic achievement to specific standards. Children with limited English skills are one of the fastest growing components of the school-aged population. Since 1979 the percentage of children speaking English with difficulty has nearly doubled (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2005). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were 3.8 million public school students receiving ELL services in school year 2003-04, about 10.6 % of students nationally (NCES, 2006). The number of students who are English language learners will likely continue to grow given that the population of school-age children who have immigrant parents is projected to increase from 12 million in 2005 to 18 million in 2025 (Passel, 2007).

Though once concentrated in a few parts of the country, English language learners are now being educated in an increasing number of states, reflecting the dispersion of the foreign-born population in recent years. Tabulations from Census data indicate that California, Texas and New York educated 63% of limited English speaking students in public schools in 1990. By 2005, the top 3 states educated only 54% of limited English speaking students. Public schools in the South and Northwest have experienced sizable growth in their public ELL enrollments since 1990. Lagging achievement by these students is now a national issue.

Ultimately, measured achievement matters because it affects socioeconomic success later in life. The President’s Council of Economic Advisers recently asserted: “Economic research suggests that educational attainment and test scores are important at both the individual level and the national level…Studies have also shown that higher test scores are associated with higher wages and more years of schooling. High school students with higher test scores are more likely to attend college and, if they attend, are more likely to graduate. Controlling for individuals’ educational attainment and family background, those who score higher on achievement tests in high school have higher wages later in life (Economic Report of the President, 2006)”.

There has not been much research on the consequences of the English language learner achievement gap. However, the consequences of the black-white achievement gap are likely informative. A recent NCES study compared the outcomes of blacks and whites with similar educational achievement levels. Parity in educational achievement is associated with narrowed differences later in life: “While blacks have lower levels of educational achievement, educational attainment, and earnings than whites, these disparities are frequently smaller, and are sometimes entirely absent, for individuals with similar levels of prior educational achievement (NCES, 2001)”

This suggests that narrowing achievement disparities could substantively narrow adult educational, labor market, and social differences. The first section of this report examines the achievement gaps between ELL students and other groups of students at the national level, based on the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The next section examines the achievement gaps at the state level in NAEP and compares them to the performance gaps apparent in the results of the tests that states have administered to comply with NCLB.

The achievement gap between ELL students and other students as measured by NAEP is not the basis under NCLB for determining whether states are meeting the law’s mandate to meet proficiency standards for all students. NAEP does not have a role in determining the legal compliance of the states. Rather individual states must develop their own tests and benchmarks for proficiency in math and reading in order to meet the federal mandates. The NAEP results, however, are informative because they are comparable across states and indicative of the degree of parity between ELL students and other student subgroups. Moreover, the testing methodologies and proficiency standards developed by a number of states for ELL students face a variety of challenges and in some cases have been rejected by the U.S. Department of Education.

Demographics of Limited English Speaking Public School Students

In school year 2003-04 there were 3.8 million public school students receiving ELL services (NCES, 2006). This is an administrative count and little demographic information is available on this category of students.

Tabulations from the 2005 American Community Survey (ACS) indicate that 2.7 million public K-12 students (age 5 and above) spoke a language other than English at home and reported speaking English less than “very well,” up from 1.7 million students in the 1980 decennial census.

Over three-quarters of the 2.7 million limited English speaking students in the 2005 ACS spoke Spanish at home. Less than a majority (40%) of the limited English students were foreign-born. The racial/ethnic composition of the limited English speakers was 70% Hispanic, 13% Asian/Pacific Islander, 12% non-Hispanic white, and 4% non-Hispanic black. Over a third of the limited English speaking students resided in poverty (35%), in comparison to a poverty rate of 19% among public school students who were not limited English speakers.

The racial/ethnic origins of the 3.8 million public school students receiving ELL services are unknown. In the 2005 American Community Survey 9.4 million Hispanic children (age 5 and above) were enrolled in public school. About one-out-of-five of the Hispanic students spoke a language other than English at home and reported speaking English less than “very well.”

  1. NCLB mandated annual statewide testing (in certain grades) in math and reading/language arts by school year 2005-06. Mandated testing in science begins in school year 2007-08.
  2. The National Assessment of Educational Progress does include private as well public school students. This report only presents achievement results for public school students.