How Many English Learners Graduate From High School? It Depends Where...

English Language Learning

How Many English Learners Graduate From High School? It Depends Where They Live

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Oct 4, 2023

How Many English Learners Graduate From High School? It Depends Where They Live

This article is part of the guide: Data Bytes: Parsing Education Data Into Snack-Sized Servings.

When Mayra Valtierrez talks about the students in New Mexico public schools who are learning English, one thing becomes clear: It’s an incredibly diverse population.

The New Mexico Public Education Department is tasked with serving not only students who have grown up speaking Spanish but also Native American children who are learning English and newcomers from other countries.

“We are a friendly state when it comes to taking any sort of refugees, or anyone who enters our state, so we have Spanish-dominant [English learner] students who come at any age, from being little to being youth,” says Valtierrez, the department’s director of language and culture. “We've been supporting some of our refugees from Afghanistan, for example, and from other places. Then we have the children of immigrants that were born here, and thus inherited a language from their family.”

Schools with English-learning students are tasked not just with ensuring that these children acquire the language but also, as with all other students, succeed academically and eventually graduate from high school.

But just how likely English learners are to graduate can vary widely depending on which state they live in.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that students who are English learners — sometimes called emergent bilinguals — generally lag behind their peers when it comes to high school graduation rates.

The data covers 10 years, starting with 2010-11 through the 2019-20 school year. The paper notes that the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic may have caused difficulties for some states in collecting and reporting graduation data for the 2019-20 school year. Texas and Illinois did not provide information that year.

Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo. Source: U.S. Department of Education.
Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo. Source: U.S. Department of Education.

Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo. Source: U.S. Department of Education.

Exactly how much of a gap exists between native English speakers and English learners depends on the state. In Indiana and Florida, graduation rates for English learners are approaching 90 percent and almost on par with the overall student population. The worst state for English learners is New York, where only 39 percent of them graduated compared to 83 percent of students overall.

New Mexico, for example, ranks 10th in graduation rates for English learners, which is nearly on par with rates for their peers who are native English speakers. The federal data shows a 77 percent overall graduation rate in the state and 76 percent for English learners.

Kirsi Laine, who leads the Student, School & Family Support Bureau at the New Mexico Public Education Department, says supporting English learners starts with identifying them through screenings for language proficiency. The specifics depend on their needs and the school they attend, she adds.

“If a student is actually identified as an English learner, we do make sure that there is an EL program that supports their language development or language acquisition,” Laine explains. “That EL program piece is really serving to ensure that there's access to the English language so that when the student is in other classes, that they can access that content.”

Laine and Valtierrez attribute the state’s results to policies that took root in 2012, starting with a roadmap for English learner success that was boosted by a federal law aimed at closing gaps three years later. Even before that, New Mexico was the first state to adopt policies supporting bilingual and multicultural education, Valtierrez says, with 2023 marking the 50th anniversary of the law.

“The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, that really gave us an opportunity to really lean into some of the specific items that Kirsi shared, like a uniform way of identifying who the [English learner] students actually are, and what's required to serve them,” Valtierrez says. “And also, let's be really specific about how there is nothing wrong with our students. They come as they are, and we're here to support them and be responsive to them.”

There was also “mindset work” done among adults, Valtierrez explains, to ensure that academic subject classes were not watered down due to a perceived language barrier.

“Learning English is a journey, but that doesn't have to have anything to do with what we're taught,” Valtierrez says. “Really, it was a lot of mindset work, ensuring that students are given an opportunity to understand why they're assessed on language, and how that differs from being assessed on content.”

Data visualization by Nadia Tamez-Robledo. Source: U.S. Department of Education.

Despite dismal numbers in some parts of the country, graduation rates among English learners have been steadily improving since 2010-11, when there was a national 10-year low of 57 percent. The national graduation rate for emergent bilinguals was 71 percent in 2019-20.

Over the five most recent years of data, Nevada made the biggest improvement in graduation rates for English learners, with an increase of 43 percentage points since 2014-15. Its English learner graduation rate for the most recent available year was 75 percent in 2019-20. New Hampshire saw the biggest decline, falling by 10 points since 2014-15 to 67 percent emergent bilinguals graduating in 2019-20.

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