The Academic Achievement of English Language Learners

Research BriefHealthy SchoolsDec 1 2014

As the U.S. population has become increasingly diverse—a continuing trend led by children—there has been an accompanying rise in the number of children who grow up hearing and learning more than one language. Dual language learnersa represent an important asset for our nation’s future, since those who have fluency in more than one language have access to a broader, and generally higher-paid, set of job opportunities.1 Moreover, children [inlinetweet prefix=”Children” tweeter=”” suffix=”@ChildTrends”]who are bilingual reap benefits in multiple developmental areas[/inlinetweet]: cognitive, social, and emotional.2 However, these opportunities can go unrealized when schools and other social institutions lack the understanding required to respond sensitively to the particular needs of dual language learners.

In this brief, we compare national trends over time in academic achievement for students who are English language learners (ELLs),b and their peers who are not English language learners. The measures we use are from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP): the percentage of fourth-graders scored as performing at a “basic or above” level in reading, and the percentage of eighth-graders scored as performing at a “basic or above” level in mathematics. (See “Achievement Levels . . .” for detailed definitions.) Reading ability by the end of third grade—when the need for “learning to read” is increasingly supplanted by “reading to learn”—is a widely recognized marker of early school success.3 Similarly, math achievement in eighth grade often determines a student’s ability to progress to the higher level courses increasingly required for a post-secondary degree.4