In U.S., Students Struggling with English Outnumber Kids Born Abroad

Mikhail Zinshteyn, EWA, December 22, 2014

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This month, the Los Angeles Times wrote about California’s status as the first state in the country to create a program aimed at improving the English fluency skills of long-term English-language learners. What caught my eye was the opening anecdote. “I should be more confident in English because I was born here, but I’m embarrassed that I haven’t improved myself,” said Dasha, a junior at a Los Angeles high school.

Is Dasha a rare native-born American student who struggles with English even as she progresses to the upper grades or is she part of a larger community, a notable subset within the ELL student population?

Definitively, it’s the latter. The overall percentage for 6-to-21-year-olds enrolled in a K-12 program who were born outside of the United States is 4.7 percent, or 2.37 million students, according research the Migration Policy Institute’s Jeanne Batalova calculated for EWA using 2012 U.S. Census data. But the percentage of U.S. students who are deemed English-language learners is nearly double that at 9.1 percent, or 4.4 million students, according to 2013 U.S. Department of Education Data. While the two figures come from different data sources–the latter includes only students in public schools–it’s clear that a large percentage of English-language learners were born in the U.S.

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This gulf between the number of students born abroad and those considered English-language learners is particularly wide in several states. California, with roughly 93 percent of its child population considered native-born in 2012, had nearly a quarter of its students enrolled in programs for English language learners that same year.

Eleven percent of Oregon’s students are English-language learners while just 4 percent of children in that state were born abroad.

Texas and Nevada have ELL student populations of 15 and 20 percent, respectively. The non-native child population in each state is around 6 percent.

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The observation that ELL students outnumber foreign-born pupils isn’t particularly new, though. In 2007, the Migration Policy Institute estimated that a little more than half of adolescent ELL students were born in the United States. Among those born in the United States, the institute calculated that “up to 27 percent of all [ELL] adolescents are members of the second generation, and 30 percent are third generation, meaning that many students educated exclusively in U.S. schools still cannot speak English well.”

The composition of English-language learners also depends notably on the students’ grade level. Nearly nine in 10 ELL students between kindergarten and grade five were born in the United States. That figure drops to about 60 percent among students grades six to 12 who were enrolled in ELL programming. These figures come from a Migration Policy Institute analysis using 2013 U.S. Census data.

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