PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · April 7, 2005

Born In The USA… But Not Proficient In English

Progress in Fluency a Mixed Bag for California’s English Learner Students

SAN FRANCISCO, California, April 7, 2005 — Over one and a half million students in California’s public school system – a full quarter of the state’s total kindergarten through twelfth grade population – are not fluent in English. How much headway is this enormous group of young people making in developing English proficiency? Progress varies and is linked to students’ native language and their socioeconomic status – but surprisingly much less to their length of time in the United States, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC).

The commonly held belief that students with limited English skills are recent immigrants is misguided: 85 percent of the state’s English learner students were born in the United States to immigrant parents. But the degree to which English learners are successful in attaining proficiency is associated with other characteristics. Regardless of their nativity, Spanish-speaking students are making significantly lower gains than Mandarin, Korean, and Russian speakers in English proficiency: In 2003, middle school students in the three latter groups reached proficiency levels on the statewide assessment test that were 57 percent to 115 percent higher than those of Spanish-speakers.

What factors influence outcomes for English learners? Family circumstances play an important role, with students from wealthier, more-educated backgrounds performing better. Case in point: The families of Mandarin speakers (the highest gaining group) have an average annual income of $92,000 and average parental education of more than 16 years, while the families of Spanish speakers (the third lowest gaining group) have an average annual income of $41,000 and average parental education of 10 years. Only Hmong and Khmer speakers come from more disadvantaged backgrounds – they are also the two groups with the lowest gains in proficiency. However, Hmong and Khmer speakers make up a small share of the state’s English learner students, whereas Spanish speakers account for 85 percent.

Why is improving English proficiency so critical? “Fluency in English is one of the most basic building blocks for creating a good quality of life in the U.S. – it can determine whether or not students go to college and how much earning potential they have,” says PPIC research fellow Christopher Jepsen, who co-authored the report with PPIC research associate Shelley de Alth. “To have such a large segment of our young population facing this kind of disadvantage has serious implications for the state.” The report, English Learners in California Schools, also finds that individual school district policies may play a large role in whether and when students are classified as fluent. The authors suggest adopting more uniform state guidelines to make it easier to monitor how programs might be modified or improved.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.