How Our Two States Achieved Remarkable Gains for English Language Learners

How Our Two States Achieved Remarkable Gains for English Language Learners
AP Photo/Martha Irvine

Each day in America, nearly five million students enter their schoolhouse door who are unable to communicate fluently in English.

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Three quarters of these students speak Spanish, but that’s not the only language. Consider Utah, where Navajo and Somali are just two of the more than 100 languages students speak. Or Hawaii, where roughly one in 11 students speaks a language other than English at home, the most common being Ilokano, Chuukese, and Marshallese.

Students with limited English proficiency, who are learning English, enrich our classrooms in so many ways. But too often, education policy makers have struggled to find the best ways to help them thrive academically and keep up with their peers.

That’s why, as state superintendents in Utah and Hawaii, we are pleased to see that reforms we’ve implemented to target English learners are showing promise. Both of our states showed tremendous growth with English learners in the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), considered the “Nation’s Report Card.”

In Utah, we did this by focusing our technical assistance on classroom observations done by content specialists across the Utah State Board of Education who provide feedback on making grade level content accessible to students learning English.

While in Hawaii, a change in the criteria used to determine whether students are proficient in the English language has led to many English language learners receiving English language supports longer.  

In Utah, we saw NAEP reading scores increase 16 points from 2017 to 2019 – meaning 38% of our English learners are at or above the basic reading level today compared to 21% two years earlier.

Similarly, in Hawaii, we saw double-digit gains for our fourth grade English learners. State average scores for fourth grade English learners increased by 26 points for reading and 13 points for mathematics compared to 2017 NAEP results.

We know that students learning English are a fast-growing segment of our nation’s student population, and will one day help shape our nation’s economic future. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that English learners made up nearly 10% of all students in 2016 – up from 8% in 2000. All but seven states and the District of Columbia have seen growth in this student population.  

The majority of students learning English were born in the United States, according to 2016 Census data. They tend to be very young, with the Pew Research Center reporting that 16% of kindergarteners were English language learners compared with 4% of high school seniors, according to 2015 data.

We know that many experience poverty. Federal data shows that English learners are more likely than the overall student population to be classified as homeless or to be served by federal Title I programs, which target high-poverty schools.

That said, we must remember that brain-based research shows students who can think, process, and learn in two languages outperform their monolingual peers and are more globally competitive. We must build on the strengths that students learning languages – including English – bring to our schools.

Too often, our nation has encouraged Old World languages as a high school endeavor rather than focusing on encouraging language instruction in elementary school. That’s why Hawaii plans to advance a language acquisition biliteracy program as a K-12 continuum.

We are pleased that Hawaii’s Seal of Biliteracy program has seen tremendous growth over the past three years as part of our commitment to honoring students’ home languages. The accolade is awarded upon high school graduation to students who demonstrate a high proficiency in both of the state’s two official languages (English and Hawaiian) or either of the state’s two official languages and at least one additional language.

Likewise, in Utah, we emphasize the importance of each family’s home language as well as academic English through Utah’s Seal of Biliteracy. The focus of valuing family language to support biliteracy is also a component of Utah’s Dual Immersion programs. In Hawaii, our data shows that when our non-English speaking students successfully exit English Learner services before high school, they outperform their non-English Learner peers when it comes to academic achievement and on-time graduation.

We must set high expectations for our nation’s English learners and help them succeed. It’s a moral and economic imperative that, while they are in our public schools, we prepare them for postsecondary educational and workplace opportunities. Let’s build on what we’ve learned when it comes to effective practices for students learning English and commit to doing all we can to ensure their success.

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