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 who are bilingual reap benefits in multiple developmental areas: 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
By some estimates, children learning more than one language are currently about one in three U.S. children.5 Their success in school will be critical for their well-being, and for the economic vitality of our nation’s future workforce.
a For a discussion of terminology, see “About the Data . . .”.
b For a discussion of terminology, see “About the Data . . .”.
c See “Background” for definition.
Although there is no single definition of English language learners, the U.S. Department of Education defines this group as students served in programs of language assistance, such as English as a second language, high-intensity language training, and bilingual education. As of the 2011-12 school year, there were 4.5 million ELL students in public elementary and secondary schools, or about nine percent of all public school students, according to the Department of Education.6 ELL students are at risk of falling behind their English-literate peers unless they receive appropriate supports.7 Thus, the Department of Education mandates separate reporting of achievement data for this group.
While no more detailed data on this group are available, ELL students are undoubtedly a diverse group. Many are, or have parents who are, recent immigrants. Their home language environment may include both English-speakers and those who maintain a heritage language long after the immigration experience. Some acquired two languages simultaneously as infants and toddlers; others are older children learning English after having gained facility in another language.8 Their first language may be one of literally dozens represented by U.S. children; for example, the Minnesota Department of Education reports that ELL students in that state represent more than 200 languages.9
According to experts, ideally ELL students should be assessed using measures that are valid in terms of their sensitivity to culture, and to the amount of exposure to English these students have had. One recommended approach is “conceptual scoring,” in which comparable test items are developed in both English and the child’s home language, and the child is permitted to respond in either language.10
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) provides the only representative estimates of students’ academic achievement that are comparable over time and across states. NAEP data include estimates of proficiency in reading and math, at fourth and eighth grades. These results are provided for a number of student groups, including English language learners. The U.S. Department of Education, which administers NAEP, encourages states to achieve a goal of at least 85 percent participation among those who are identified as ELL students in their test sample. Since 2000, the Department has allowed states to provide a number of “accommodations” to ELL students, which include extended testing time, small-group or one-on-one testing, and test directions (and, for math, test items) read aloud in Spanish. Note that, whereas the overall NAEP samples are representative of all students nationally, and by state, the sample of ELL students cannot be assumed to be generalizable to the whole population of such students.
This report focuses on the fourth-grade reading and the eighth-grade math assessments. It provides tabulations, for each assessment, of the percentage of ELL students and non-ELL students who performed at the “basic” level or above.d The Department of Education defines the basic level as “partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work at each grade.”11
The most recent year available for these NAEP data is 2013. Comparable data extend back to 2000. NAEP also provides achievement data for “former ELL students.” This group is defined as those who are not currently ELL students, but who received ELL services within the past two years. Data for this group are available only since 2005.
d Although achievement at a “basic” level of may provide a more realistic benchmark for ELL students, the analysis was also run using the proportion of students testing at the “proficient” level or above. Results were essentially the same (data available on request).
For the 2013 fourth-grade reading assessment, eight states (CT, DE, GA, IN, KY, MD, RI, and UT) did not meet the national goal of including at least 85 percent of ELL students selected for the sample. Nationwide, 47 percent of ELL students received accommodations for this test. By state, the range was from a high of 100 percent (NY) to a low of 16 percent (CA) (AL and WV had insufficient data for this analysis).
For the 2013 eighth-grade math assessment, three states (MD, MA, and MI) and the District of Columbia did not meet the goal of including at least 85 percent of ELL students. Nationwide, 53 percent of ELL students received accommodations for this test. By state, the range was from a high of 92 percent (NY) to a low of 26 percent (CA) (AL, MS, and WV had insufficient data for this analysis).
At the national level, just under one-third of ELL students (31 percent) scored at the basic level or above in reading at fourth grade, compared with more than two-thirds (72 percent) of non-ELL students. In all but two states—LA and SC—the difference in performance between ELL students and non-ELL students was statistically significant. In just three states (SC, MD, and OH), a majority of ELL students reached the basic level in reading; in ten states (AK, AZ, HI, ID, IL, MT, NM, RI, TN, UT), fewer than 20 percent of ELL students met this criterion (AL,MS, VT, and WV did not meet NAEP reporting standards).
Nationally, just under one-third of ELL students (31 percent) scored at the basic level or above in math at eighth grade, compared with three-quarters (75 percent) of non-ELL students. In all states but SC, the difference in performance between ELL students and non-ELL students was statistically significant. In just three states (AR, KS, and SC), a majority of ELL students reached the basic level in math; in five states (CT, ID, NV, OR, UT), fewer than 20 percent of ELL students met this criterion (AL, AZ, DE, IN, LA, ME, MS, MO, MT, NH, NJ, NJ, ND, TN, VT, and WV did not meet NAEP reporting standards).
NAEP also provides achievement data for “former ELL students.” These are defined as those who are not currently ELL students, but who received ELL services within the past two years.e Available only for the most recent five years, these data show fourth-graders nationally in 2013 who were formerly ELL students achieved at a level comparable to non-ELL students in reading. On the 2013 eighth-grade math assessment, former ELL students’ achievement nationally was significantly lower than that of non-ELL students, but significantly higher than that of ELL students. At a state level, small sample sizes for former ELL students precluded analysis of their results.
Other information on dual-language-learner children shows that they are disproportionately poor.12 Those whose home language is Spanish comprise the largest single group, and are also the group with the highest poverty level. Poverty (as determined by students’ eligibility for the National School Lunch Program) is strongly associated with lower NAEP scores13 (analysis not shown here).
The specific linguistic make-up of the ELL student population varies from state to state.14; Nevertheless, the variability in state-level performance overall, and in the size of the gap between ELL and non-ELL students, suggests that there may be modifiable factors related to the academic achievement of ELL students. These could include the degree of stress associated with acculturation, as well as family income.15 The state-level data might prompt further inquiry into the policies, classroom curricula, school and community supports, and other characteristics of states that have been relatively more successful in promoting the achievement of their English language learners.
The author thanks Laura Lippman, Natalia Pane, and Lina Guzman for providing review and comments on earlier drafts of this brief. We also gratefully acknowledge the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
© Child Trends 2014. May be reprinted with citation.
Child Trends is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies children at all stages of development. Our mission is to improve the lives and prospects of children and youth by conducting high-quality research and sharing the resulting knowledge with practitioners and policymakers. For additional information, including publications available to download, visit our website at childtrends.org.
e States’ policies for reclassifying ELL students vary enormously, and some states give additional discretion to local districts. There is evidence that mistimed (either too early or too late) reclassification of ELL students to “former ELL students” can be harmful to their development. Efforts are underway to improve and standardize these procedures. Williams, C. P. (2014). Chaos for dual language learners: An examination of state policies for exiting children from language services in the preK-3rd grades. New America. Retrieved from http://www.newamerica.org/downloads/chaosfordlls-conorwilliams-20140925_v3.pdf
There are multiple terms in use to refer to children learning more than one language, either concurrently or consecutively. The primary data in this brief are from the federal Department of Education, which defines “English language learners” as students served in programs of language assistance, such as English as a second language, high-intensity language training, and bilingual education. Under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“No Child Left Behind”), ELL students are among the subgroups for which school districts must provide disaggregated assessment data. The U.S. Census Bureau in its surveys asks about languages spoken at home and, for individuals five and older, their level of English-speaking ability. The term “dual language learners” is preferred by many researchers and practitioners (including those in Head Start and Early Head Start), and generally refers to young children learning English while they are continuing to develop skills in another language used at home.
For achievement in fourth-grade reading, NAEP offers the following description of the basic level:
Fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to locate relevant information, make simple inferences, and use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a given interpretation or conclusion. Students should be able to interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text.
When reading literary texts such as fiction, poetry, and literary nonfiction, fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to make simple inferences about characters, events, plot, and setting. They should be able to identify a problem in a story and relevant information that supports an interpretation of a text.
When reading informational texts such as articles and excerpts from books, fourth-grade students performing at the Basic level should be able to identify the main purpose and an explicitly stated main idea, as well as gather information from various parts of a text to provide supporting information.
For achievement in eighth-grade math, NAEP offers the following description of the basic level:
Eighth-grade students performing at the Basic level should exhibit evidence of conceptual and procedural understanding in the five NAEP content areas. This level of performance signifies an understanding of arithmetic operations—including estimation—on whole numbers, decimals, fractions, and percents.
Eighth-graders performing at the Basic level should complete problems correctly with the help of structural prompts such as diagrams, charts, and graphs. They should be able to solve problems in all NAEP content areas through the appropriate selection and use of strategies and technological tools—including calculators, computers, and geometric shapes. Students at this level also should be able to use fundamental algebraic and informal geometric concepts in problem solving.
1 Skinner, C., Wight, V. R., Aratani, Y., Cooper, J. L., & Thampi, K. (2010). English language proficiency, family economic security, and child development. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty.
2 Castro, D. C., García, E. E., & Markos, A. M. (2013). Dual language learners: Research informing policy. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center.
McCabe, A., Bornstein, M. H., Guerra, A. W., Kuchirko, Y., Paéz, M., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Cates, C. B., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Melzi, G., Song, L., Golinkoff, R., Hoff, E., & Mendelsohn, A. (2013). Multilingual children: Beyond myths and toward best practices. Social Policy Report, 27(4), 1-21.
Halle, T. G., Whittaker, J. V., Zepeda, M., Rothenberg, L., Anderson, R., Daneri, P., Wessel, J., & Buysse, V. (in press). The social-emotional development of dual language learners: Looking back at existing research and moving forward with purpose. Early Childhood Research Quarterly.
3 KIDS COUNT. (2010). Early warning: Why reading by the end of third grade matters. Baltimore: The Annie E. Casey Foundation.
4 Attawell, P., & Domina, T. (2008). Raising the bar: Curricular intensity and academic performance. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30(1), 51-71.
5 Child Trends analysis of 2012 American Community Survey data. Language spoken at home. See http://www.childtrends. org/?indicators=dual-language-learners
6 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), “Local Education Agency (School District) Universe Survey”, 2011-12 v.1a; “State Nonfiscal Public Elementary/Secondary Education Survey”, 2011-12 v.1a.
7 Konishi, H., Kanero, J., Freeman, M. R., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2014). Six principles of language development: Implications for second language learners. Developmental Neuropsychology, 19(5), 404-420.
8 McCabe, A., Bornstein, M. H., Guerra, A. W., Kuchirko, Y., Paéz, M., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Cates, C. B., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Melzi, G., Song, L., Golinkoff, R., Hoff, E., & Mendelsohn, A. (2013). Multilingual children: Beyond myths and toward best practices. Social Policy Report, 27(4), 1-21.
9 Ranks of English learners swelling in Minnesota schools. Mike Zitlow. December 12, 2012. Minnesota Public Radio. Retrieved from http://www.mprnews.org/story/2012/12/13/teaching-minnesota-elloverview
10 Pena, E. D. & Halle, T. G. (2011). Assessing preschool dual language learners: Traveling a multiforked road. Child Development Perspectives, 5(1), 28-32.
11 National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). NAEP achievement levels. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/ achievement.aspx
12 Child Trends analysis of 2012 American Community Survey data. See https://www.childtrends.org/?indicators=dual-languagelearners
13 Analysis available using the NAEP Data Explorer. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/
14 Migration Policy Institute. (2010). Top languages spoken by English language learners nationally and by state. ELL Information Center Fact Sheet Series. Retrieved from http://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/top-languages-spoken-english-language-learnersnationally-and-state
15 Winsler, A., Burchinal, M. R., Tien, H-C., Peisner-Feinberg, E., Espinosa, L., Castro, D. C., LaForret, D. R., Kim, Y. K., & De Feyter, J. (2014). Early development among dual language learners: The roles of language use at home, maternal immigration, country of origin, and socio-demographic variables. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 29, 750-764.