For many years, most of the problems of American public education have been described in terms of “achievement gaps.” This framing, and the education policy approaches that build from it, have much to recommend them. The framing begins from the incontrovertible premise that students from historically underserved demographic groups often have limited access to high-quality educational opportunities. This core, systemic inequity drives gaps in student achievement between students from these groups and privileged students. As such, those achievement gaps—as measured by academic assessments—serve as beacons guiding efforts to improve American public education.

But policymaking based on an “achievement gap” approach to educational equity isn’t without problems. There’s nothing wrong with the goal, of course: equitable opportunities and outcomes for underserved students are elemental, if often perjured, promises of American public education. Rather, it’s that achievement gaps are only effective illustrations of structural inequities when they’re measured appropriately.

In education policy discussions, English learners (ELs) are generally included as one of the country’s historically underserved student groups. There’s good reason for this characterization. In almost every case, ELs’ achievement on academic assessments appears to be lower than non-ELs’. As noted above, this sort of achievement gap can be a sign that ELs aren’t getting the educational opportunities that they deserve from U.S. schools.

And yet, new research suggests that this approach has been misinforming our approach to educating ELs for decades. Fortunately, there are ways to fix this mismatch and do better by our country’s EL students.

Different Kinds of Achievement

When it comes to linguistic diversity in American public schools, there are basically four groups:

  1. English-dominant children: children who speak English as their native language.
  2. True multilingual learners: children raised in multiple languages who are fluent in English and another language (or languages).
  3. English learners (ELs): children who have not yet reached their state’s definition of English language proficiency.
  4. Former English learners: children who used to be ELs, but have reached their state’s definition of English language proficiency.

And yet, these groups are neither permanent nor fully discrete. Students are included in the EL group only for the period of time when they are learning English, and then they leave it when they demonstrate English proficiency (usually referred to as “exiting EL status” or “being reclassified as a former EL”). That is, a student who is identified as an EL in kindergarten and develops full English language proficiency in fourth grade should, in theory, have language skills similar to monolingual English-speakers. Indeed, in most places in the country, schools and school districts stop keeping track of former ELs after several years. From a public policy perspective, Groups 1 and 4 are often indistinguishable.

Most of the policies shaping ELs’ education stem from the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). That law requires states to screen students’ language abilities, define a benchmark for English proficiency, identify and classify students as ELs, support ELs with instruction to advance their linguistic and academic development, track ELs’ progress toward proficiency, and determine when ELs have reached proficiency. During the period that ELs are working toward being “reclassified” as English-proficient, they also take academic assessments (generally conducted in English). Schools’ efficacy in teaching English is measured according to how well the EL performs on English proficiency tests and academic tests.

This policy framework, largely established under ESSA’s predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), has done much to spur states to provide more structured support for ELs, and to measure these students’ successes and challenges more transparently.

But at the same time, the framework is most effective with static demographic groups. It works less well with groups that students enter, move through, and leave. Two recent studies demonstrate the effects of the mismatch well: by applying this framework to ELs, our federal policy ends up treating them as if they are a wholly and permanently separate group from non-ELs within U.S. schools.

Both studies explore the importance of “reclassification”: the moment when ELs reach proficiency and become former ELs. Depending on their particular pedagogical context, reclassification can either harm or benefit these students. For example, ELs receive ongoing support services designed to help them learn English, but these services can, in some instances, interfere with their daily schedules and force them to miss out on academic instructional time. But it’s possible to get reclassification wrong in other ways as well. For instance, when former ELs are reclassified, they no longer miss out on instruction, but they do have to go without language support services.

A recent study from the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) explores the challenges of getting reclassification right. Its authors compare academic outcomes of children who narrowly miss leaving the EL subgroup with the outcomes of children who narrowly reach reclassification as former ELs. These two groups have largely similar English language proficiencies—they sit just a few points from one another, on either side of a dividing line that defines who officially remains an EL and who ceases to be one. This doesn’t mean that such benchmarks shouldn’t exist—it simply means that they should be carefully constructed. Ideally, the academic performance of a student who scores one point below the EL/former EL line shouldn’t differ very much from the performance of a student who scores one point above it.

However, state systems for measuring ELs’ language abilities and determining when to reclassify them often fall short of ideal. As the PPIC researchers put it, “[If] students see a dip in their test scores post reclassification, this suggests that they were reclassified too soon and the reclassification criteria were too loose. If we observe that test scores jump post reclassification, this indicates students were reclassified too late and reclassification criteria were too rigorous.”

To that end, the researchers tested different reclassification procedures and standards in use in Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) in the first decade and a half of this century. By and large, they found that LAUSD and SDUSD’s reclassification benchmarks transitioned ELs smoothly to former EL status. However, they found some evidence that, under earlier reclassification procedures (from 2003 to 2006), some high school students in LAUSD may have been reclassified too soon, which lowered their chance of graduating from high school on time. They also found that, between 2007 and 2012, former ELs in LAUSD scored worse on math and literacy assessments than peers who weren’t reclassified at the same time, but that this negative effect only lasted for one year.

In other words, while reaching proficiency and leaving the EL group is an important goal for students and their schools, its actual value hinges on a range of complex factors (states’ definition of English proficiency, states’ academic assessments, schools’ instructional offerings for ELs, and much more).

Most current EL policies struggle to capture that sort of nuance. Another way to improve narratives about ELs is to keep track of how students perform when they leave that group. A new University of Chicago Consortium on School Research study of ELs in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) explores precisely that.

The study tracked the academic progress of “more than 18,000 students who began as ELs…[and] were continuously-enrolled in CPS from kindergarten to eighth grade.” The researchers found that, over time, ELs in Chicago perform as well as—or better than—peers who were never identified as ELs on a host of metrics. “Publicly-reported statistics often make it look as if EL students are consistently behind non-EL students,” the researchers wrote, “but on average, students [in the study] who began as ELs actually had similar achievement and growth, and higher attendance, compared to students never classified as ELs.”

If former ELs are generally performing well relative to their non-EL peers, then, the argument goes, perhaps schools are actually meeting their needs. Perhaps it’s a mistake to include English learners in broader groupings of “historically underserved” students?

However, there are caveats. The study only captures the academic performance of ELs who enrolled in Chicago Public Schools in kindergarten—and remained in CPS. That is, newcomer ELs who came to CPS—and/or the United States—after kindergarten are not counted. Nor are ELs who left CPS.

What’s more, the study notes that fully 22 percent of ELs did not reach English proficiency by the beginning of high school. That is, while the 78 percent of students who became former ELs—who became proficient in English during their CPS careers—may be performing particularly well on those academic metrics, the story for one-fifth of Chicago’s continuously enrolled ELs who do not reach proficiency is somewhat different. These students are referred to as long-term English learners (LTELs); studies generally find that these students are more likely to drop out of school.

Still, these are encouraging findings, and they conform with the existing research consensus about ELs’ performance. Research and data from other jurisdictions have found similar results (see, for instance, evidence from Texas, New York, California, Hawaii, and Oregon). Across the country, ELs are performing much better than a simple achievement gap analysis might suggest—so long as schools continue to track their performance once they reach English language proficiency and exit the EL subgroup.

How to Improve EL Policies

In sum, the studies showcase two main challenges for EL policymaking:

  1.  The line between students classified as ELs and students reclassified as former ELs is porous and arbitrary. As such, supposed achievement gaps between ELs and non-ELs often reveal little about the quality of educational opportunities available to these students.
  2.  Short-term metrics—like performance on academic assessments—do not provide a comprehensive view of how ELs perform in U.S. schools. Studies like those discussed above repeatedly find that, over time, ELs who reach English language proficiency perform at least as well as native English-speaking students who were never classified as ELs.

A traditional achievement gap framing misses (or worse, mangles) these issues. So: how can public policies better capture these realities—and keep public attention focused on systemic challenges that ELs face in American schools?

First: policymakers should collect data that adds nuance to our picture of the EL student group for the purposes of measuring schools’ performance. Transparency and accountability systems should aspire to capture the diversity of ELs’ linguistic and academic profiles. A native Spanish-speaking student who is born in the United States and begins the process of formally learning English in a Head Start classroom at 4 years old likely has different language acquisition pathways than a native Wolof-speaker born overseas who arrives in an American high school at 15 years old. Public school oversight systems should set expectations for schools and students that reflect these sorts of realities. Consider, for example, New Jersey, which requested a waiver from federal regulations to grant newcomer English learners in high school an extra year to reach graduation (note: the state’s request was unfortunately denied).

Second: policymakers should make reclassification less of a binary experience for English-learning students. At present, ELs receive language supports while they are classified in the group, and they cease to receive them as they become former ELs. Policies defining which students are ELs should provide language supports that treat progress towards English proficiency as more of a continuum. For instance, they should continue funding language support services for students in the first three years after they are reclassified as former ELs.

In addition, policymakers could consider a recommendation from the PPIC report, which suggests that that ELs scoring near their state’s reclassification benchmark should have multiple paths to demonstrate that they are ready to exit the EL group. That is, if students score just below the state’s cut score defining English language proficiency, they might be able to exit the subgroup by scoring well on other academic metrics.

Third: policymakers should follow Illinois’s example and track former ELs as their own student group for accountability purposes. That is, instead of evaluating schools’ effectiveness for ELs solely according to how current ELs perform on academic assessments, they should watch to see how these students do once they’ve exited the EL group. Do former ELs have similar academic trajectories to English-dominant students? Do they graduate high school at similar rates?

Fourth: policymakers should try, whenever possible, to track ELs’ linguistic proficiencies in their native language or languages. These students—like any group of students in U.S. schools—have diverse skills, proficiencies, and knowledge. In some cases, ELs who are newcomers to the United States may have varied experiences with formal education settings. Policies that define these students solely in terms of their (growing, non-static) English abilities are certain to miss key information.

Finally, it’s worth noting that there is still value in analyzing ELs’ performance in terms of achievement gaps on academic assessments. American public schools have a long, embarrassing history of using children’s linguistic diversity as a proxy for systemic inequities rooted in race, ethnicity, and nativity. More often than not, this has meant that ELs have been sidelined from high-quality educational opportunities. Without transparency—and public pressure—schools are prone to drifting into this sort of behavior. Whatever its limitations, transparency around ELs’ performance on regularly administered academic assessments provides a signal to schools that these students’ progress is a key public priority.