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The Complex Factors Affecting English-Learner Graduation Rates

The likelihood of an English learner graduating from high school within four years may depend on the student’s race and ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, according to a new study from New York University and University of Houston researchers.

Federal data from 2019-20 show that while the national English-learner graduation rate has increased to about 71 percent, those students still lag behind the overall rate of 86 percent.

For their study published in the Educational Researcher journal this month, researchers reviewed graduation data of more than 127,900 New York City students who began 9th grade in 2013 and 2014. While students overall who received federally mandated language services—English learners—were about 4 percent less likely to graduate on time, the narrative quickly changed when data for race, gender, and socioeconomic status were broken down.

For instance, girls—who at any point in their K-12 education were identified as English learners—were more likely to graduate than their male -counterparts. Black English learners had higher graduation rates than Black peers who never had specialized language services. Asian and Pacific Islander English learners graduated at higher rates than all Latino and Black peers, while Latino English learners were the group least likely to graduate out of all. Median household incomes of where English learners lived also influenced graduation outcomes.

“What our work suggests is that we have to think about the intersectional identities that students hold,” said Michael Kieffer, an associate professor of literacy education at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development and a co-author of the report.

What happens when you disaggregate English-learner data

While qualitative research in the past has looked into what happens when you disaggregate English-learner data, the new study was intended to identify any trends across a large data set, Kieffer said.

Another motivation for the study stemmed from the field of raciolinguistics, where racialized students are perceived differently because of their multilingualism, based on how their race and ethnicity are viewed. For instance, multilingual white students may have their linguistic assets praised more than multilingual Black and Latino students, said Ben Le, a co-author of the study and a doctoral student at NYU Steinhardt.

This intersectional lens was crucial to the study.

For instance, for the cohort of students identified as English learners, no distinction was made between those who were reclassified out of English-learner status in their elementary years and those who received language services for a longer period of time. Yet, disparities among race, gender, and socioeconomic status lines remained, Le said.

For instance, all English learners in low-income neighborhoods, where the median household income was below $40,000, were equally likely to graduate compared with their non-English-learner peers in similar neighborhoods. But in middle- and high-income neighborhoods, English learners in general were less likely to graduate than non-English learners in similar neighborhoods.

It’s why Le recommends that when educators disaggregate their local data on English-learner graduation rates, they should take stock of what resources were available to the students both in and out of school and what perceptions of a student’s assets are at play.

What educators should keep in mind

The study overall not only highlights the value of educators and researchers alike breaking down English-learner data, but it also brings into question how the English-learner label works, said Lucrecia Santibañez, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Education & Information Studies.

When the NYU and University of Houston study pointed out the disparities at play when English learners were in middle- and high-income neighborhoods, Santibañez said the label of English learner might lead to tracking students out of advanced coursework as other national research studies have found.

The label itself is needed to denote who legally qualifies for language-instruction support, yet educators need to be careful not to let deficit mindsets tied to that label get in the way of students accessing high-quality education, she added.

Although the study focuses on New York City data, past research suggests such disparities are not unique to this data set but play out in different contexts, Le said.

“Thinking about this approach in different places, this kind of intersectional approach is still very valuable,” Kieffer added.

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