Closing the Achievement Gap: English Language Learners in California

When it comes to English language learners and overcoming educational barriers, California and the City of Riverside are at the eye of the storm. Riverside’s educational system—with its great linguistic and cultural diversity—is tasked with helping thousands of children who speak another language at home learn English. However, this great challenge presents a myriad of obstacles for school districts across California. 

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, California is the single most diverse state in the United States. Not only is California culturally and ethnically diverse, 43.9% of Californians in 2021 reported speaking a language other than English at home. When students from these families are first enrolled in school, the Home Language Survey identifies children who speak a language other than English at home. If these students are unable to demonstrate English proficiency upon assessment, they will be classified as English Learners or EL students.

In the 2022-2023 school year, EL students totaled 1.113 million and made up over 19% of the student body across California public schools according to the California Department of Education. While 65.8% of these students are concentrated in the elementary grades, 34.2% of students have not been reclassified by the middle and high school levels. Furthermore, the majority (81.9%) of these students speak Spanish due to California’s high Hispanic immigrant population. It is up to the school districts in California to aid EL students in their journey towards reclassification.

Reclassification is the process for EL students to be relabeled as Reclassified Fluent English Proficient or RFEP students. Out of California’s 5.9 million students, 15.9% are RFEP. The process of reclassification consists of meeting two criteria: completing an assessment of English proficiency and teacher evaluations. Even after students have met the requirements for reclassification, they must be monitored for a minimum of four years to ensure appropriate academic progress.

Setting the challenges of reclassification aside, there is a great academic achievement gap between English proficient and EL students. While 51.8% of English only students met or exceeded standards on the 2021-2022 Smarter Balanced Summative Assessment for English Language Arts, only 12.5% of EL students met this goal according to the California Department of Education.

It’s expected that English learners will struggle in subjects that incorporate English. However, the academic achievement gap goes beyond the English language and expands into other subjects. For instance, 37.8% of English only students met or exceeded standards for the mathematics section of the 2021-2022 Smarter Balanced Summative Assessment, but only 9.7% of EL students met this benchmark. Additionally, only 71.8% of English learners statewide graduated high school within 4 years compared to 89.5% of all English only students. Shockingly, the gap even bleeds into the nonacademic aspects of school, as shown by 33.6% of English learners being chronically absent in 2022.

Riverside and California are among the areas with the greatest immigrant and English learner populations. It is up to educators and school administrators to not only help students reclassify, but close the achievement gap between English only and English learner students. Although achieving educational equity for English learner students remains a far away goal, parents and students alike must maintain faith in the education system to ensure their success and overcome language barriers.

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