State Guardrails Are Needed to Help Support High-Quality Learning and High School Completion for English Learners
WASHINGTON — Few academic outcomes carry the weight of high school graduation. Yet for the 5 million English Learners (ELs) in the United States, the pathway to graduation can be uneven and complex as students balance English instruction with rigorous graduation requirements, especially if they are newcomers unfamiliar with school and community systems. While many high schools have created successful and innovative EL programs to address educational gaps, there is often little consistency from school to school in what services are available and what college and career preparation pathways ELs can access.
A new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, The Impacts on English Learners of Key State High School Policies and Graduation Requirements, describes how policies governing graduation requirements and EL instruction shape the educational outcomes of English Learners. With EL four-year graduation rates much lower than for all students—69 percent in 2019 versus 84 percent— there is much more that states can do to ensure equal access to high-quality learning.
“While local flexibility is often key to meeting the diverse needs of ELs, the lack of guardrails in many states may mean that students in different school districts within a state have very different experiences and levels of access to a rigorous education,” Senior Policy Analyst for PreK-12 Education Julie Sugarman writes.
For example, as ELs balance English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction with core coursework (English language arts, math, social studies, etc.) needed to graduate, states could clarify what EL-specific coursework counts for required credit. Many schools are already taking steps to do this, or are combining ESL classes with content area instruction, meaning they teach both ESL and content curricula in an integrated way. State guidance and clarifications on these practices could help keep students on track to earning state-required credits and advancing in their language development.
The report also finds that growing expectations for students to be college and career ready have mixed implications for ELs. While research shows that taking more rigorous coursework in high school can have positive long-term effects on high school and college success, in states where the demands of core coursework are extensive, schools may find their options to provide newcomers with ESL or academic support or enrichment are limited by the number of periods available in the day. States should consider what supports need to be in place for college-preparatory pathways to be successful, especially for newcomers entering U.S. schools with limited formal education.
“Educational systems must balance high standards for all students with options that support ELs with a range of needs and attending schools with diverse capacities,” Sugarman writes. “With such variation in contexts, state regulations and guidance can provide important guardrails to ensure consistency across districts, while allowing for flexibility to help ELs achieve their educational goals.”
You can read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/english-learners-high-school-policies.
For more of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy’s work on K-12 education, visit: www.migrationpolicy.org/topics/k-12-education.
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The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels. MPI’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy is a crossroads for elected officials, researchers, state and local agency managers, grassroots leaders, local service providers and others who seek to understand and respond to the challenges and opportunities today’s high rates of immigration create in local communities.