English learners (ELs) are a group of American students. How do we know? Federal law—primarily in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)—says so. But, like most federally designated student groups, the drawn contours of “ELs” as a group are fuzzier than they might initially appear. Indeed, in this case, these dividing lines may well obscure as much as they illuminate.

More Diverse Than You Think

Let’s start with where we draw these boundaries. Under current federal law—which drives states’ definitions of which students are formally classified as ELs—in any given year, there are around 5 million ELs in U.S. schools. This number has increased steadily since the country began collecting relatively standardized ELs data in the early 2000s, under No Child Left Behind. These are the students who at one point scored below their state’s benchmark for English proficiency and have yet to score above it on any of their state’s annual administrations of their English language proficiency assessment. 

But that is where the commonality ends. These 5 million children span a wide range of demographics. A majority of ELs are Latinx children, though significant percentages are Black or of Asian descent. At present, roughly 75 percent of ELs speak Spanish at home, though many tens of thousands speak other languages, such as Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Haitian Creole, Somali, or Hmong. 

Their emerging English abilities span a wide range as well. The EL student group contains students who have just been identified as ELs, and whose English proficiencies are still at the beginner level, but it also includes students who have developed social proficiency in English and are nearing full academic proficiency across all four language domains (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). Each year adds hundreds of thousands of new ELs to the group—and sheds a similar number of students who reach English proficiency and leave the group. This is another way of noting that the 5 million mostly excludes “former ELs,” those students who have reached their state’s definitions of English proficiency on the state English language proficiency assessment—though reaching that benchmark hardly marks the end of their emerging bilingual development

Even these distinctions only begin to scratch the surface of EL diversity. A small percentage of ELs are recently arrived immigrants themselves, though the large majority of these students—at least 75 percent—are native-born American citizens. Further, within the group of ELs who are newcomers, some are refugees and/or students with limited or interrupted formal educational experiences (SLIFE) in their years before arriving in U.S. schools.

Diverse Students Mean Diverse Needs and Diverse Trajectories

What’s more, these differences in experience and development matter. Some can be key variables in determining ELs’ linguistic and academic trajectories in U.S. schools. For instance, there is evidence that ELs’ home languages can affect their English acquisition patterns. In some studies, ELs with home languages such as Spanish, which shares an alphabet and other key elements with English, gain additional benefits from bilingual instruction when compared with ELs who speak other, less structurally similar languages. And that’s just the beginning. A 2017 consensus report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that the length of time it took students to reach English proficiency varied by a host of other factors as well, including their age of entry into U.S. schools, their levels of exposure to English before kindergarten, whether they were U.S.- or foreign-born, whether they qualified for special education services, and whether they attended schools with high numbers of families experiencing poverty. 

And yet, essentially none of these variables—home language, socioeconomic status, age of arrival in the United States, etc.—are factored into existing data or into the accountability systems shaping schools’ instructional choices. Current systems focus on the English skills that ELs have not yet fully developed, and generally set relatively uniform benchmarks for the trajectories children should take while fully acquiring those skills. In other words, our systems are set up to treat ELs as a clearly defined, unitary group—a more-or-less homogeneous bloc of students whose strengths and needs are all basically identical. 

This is a mistake. ELs deserve a better, more equitable system for tracking their progress and encouraging schools to meet their needs. This starts with gathering basic data on their diversity as a group. This is critical, in part, because much of the research on the influence variables such as the influence of particular home languages on English acquisition trajectories and the value of particular instructional models for particular groups of ELs is still emerging. Better data gathering on ELs’ diversity could significantly speed efforts to build a more comprehensive understanding of what works best for ELs of various backgrounds. 

Indeed, in non-binding 2016 guidance, the U.S. Department of Education made this very point, suggesting that states gather more fine grained data on ELs so as to “provide a more detailed picture of performance variation among different subgroups of ELs” and “to determine which [language instruction educational programs] are…effective in improving English language proficiency and academic achievement for ELs.” This is a critical idea that should be incorporated into legislation, not left as a voluntary suggestion—one that essentially all states are ignoring. 

As I suggested in my recent TCF report, “A New Federal Equity Agenda for Dual Language Learners and English Learners:” 

Congress should require states to report on former ELs’ and long-term ELs (LTELs) linguistic and academic development as unique student groups, and include their progress in state accountability systems for both schools and school districts. Further, Congress should instruct the Department of Education to develop definitions of newcomer ELs and students with limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE).

Further, in our recent report, “10 Ways the Biden Administration Can Advance Equity for Young Learners Today,” my Children’s Equity Project co-authors and I recommended that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights collect data on the instructional models—specifically, bilingual and/or dual language schools—in use in different schools. 

These new data points would make it possible to determine, at a large scale, how older newcomer ELs’ English acquisition trajectories differ from younger, native-born ELs’ trajectories. It would help educators, researchers, policymakers, and families see more clearly which subgroups of EL students are most likely to become LTELs. And data on ELs’ linguistic and academic progress in bilingual, dual language, and English-only settings would also help states to set clearer accountability expectations for ELs, their schools, and their districts. 

These are just a few of the questions that better data on ELs’ diversity could help answer. Such data would allow policymakers to adjust accountability systems to better suit the diverse linguistic and academic trajectories of different ELs. But most importantly, they would help to refine how schools ought to be serving their own, unique, and diverse EL populations—which, after all, is the whole point of having public education data and accountability policies.