More than 40 percent of students in California’s public K–12 system speak a language other than English at home. Almost half of these students are considered English Learners (ELs), in need of language and academic support to succeed in school. In middle and high school, ELs face the dual challenge of attaining fluency in English and working toward a high school diploma.
At a lunchtime briefing in Sacramento last week, Laura Hill—a senior research fellow at PPIC—and Megan Hopkins—an assistant professor at UC San Diego—outlined the findings of a new report on two distinct types of EL students: long-term ELs, who have been in US schools for several years without being reclassified as fluent in English, and late-arriving ELs, who first enroll in the district in grade 6 or higher. The authors looked at the impact of a school’s language environment on academic progress and examined trends in English language development (ELD) courses.
The report focused on the state’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). Together, they enroll about 14% of the state’s EL population—and about 4% of the EL population in schools nationwide. As Laura Hill put it, “It’s a big deal to be able to study in these two districts.”
How might the language mix among students at a school be associated with academic outcomes—both for both fluent English speakers and for ELs? The report finds that the academic outcomes of native or initially fluent English speakers was not related to the percentage of EL students at a school. The evidence is mixed on the relationship between the percentage of ELs in a school and the academic performance of ELs.
Megan Hopkins outlined key findings on ELD courses. She noted that in recent years the rate of EL students receiving ELD instruction has declined in Los Angeles and risen somewhat in San Diego. These trends may be influenced by district-level factors; they are important because, in both SDUSD and LAUSD, long-term ELs who do not have ELD instruction experience slower growth on statewide English language arts tests. These findings suggest that efforts should be made to support ongoing ELD and other language supports, but Hopkins noted that ensuring access to core academic content is also important.
More generally, this study underlines the importance of understanding the factors that contribute to the progress and struggles of California’s large EL population—so that schools can help all ELs advance linguistically and academically.