Blog: Latino Ed Beat

California Eyes Tracking Long-Term English Language Learners

A common misconception about English language learners is that they are new immigrants. In fact, many middle and high school students who carry the label have been attending American schools for years without reaching English proficiency. In some cases, they are even U.S.-born.

The academic struggles of these students raises plenty of questions, including this one: Why are they stuck in the system? But in order to find solutions, schools must first acknowledge that the problem exists, instead of insisting these limited English proficient students are newcomers. In Texas, I found that many school administrators adhered to the new immigrant theory. In some cases, as one bilingual education program director told me, they were just unaware of the reality in their own schools.

However, a growing number of researchers are addressing a population known as long-term English language learners. These students speak English, but have not picked up the academic skills necessary to be considered proficient.

Lesli Maxwell of Education Week reports that California may soon become the first state to truly acknowledge that they have a problem. The California Legislature approved requiring school districts to report annual data on the long-term students, in addition to identifying students at-risk of falling into the category. Gov. Jerry Brown will consider signing the bill on Sept. 28.

Because the state has such a large population, it could spur other states to take similar actions.

Part of this action was prompted by a two-year-old report, “Reparable Harm,” by the group Californians Together. The organization found that about 59 percent of ELLs in grades 6-12 had been enrolled in U.S. schools more than six years, had been at the same English proficiency level two or more years, and performed at low levels on the state’s English language arts exam.

Reporting requirements will inspire more efforts to close the gaps, said Laurie Olsen, the researcher who wrote “Reparable  Harm.”

“That’s why the legislation is important, because right now what’s happening is haphazard, and it’s not of the quality and coherence we need in order to see real, systemic improvement,” she told Education Week.

The publication reports that the causes are a lack of academic language and students not being engaged in school. But school officials in Tracy, Calif., already are taking action. They created the Academic and Language Support Program, which offers an elective to long-term students in addition to their English classes focused on academic English.

For now, California is in the position of setting an example for the nation.