Academic Performance and Outcomes for English Learners

Performance on national assessments and on-time graduation rates

  • — U.S. Department of Education


This data story builds on previous data stories, which examine the characteristics and educational experiences of English learners (ELs). In this data story we go a step further to explore the academic performance and outcomes for ELs on two key indicators: (1) their proficiency on a national exam, and (2) their high school graduation rate. Proficiency on educational assessments is one indicator that students have the knowledge and skills expected at their grade level.1 On-time high school graduation is one measure of readiness for postsecondary activities, such as college, employment, and military service.a A high school diploma also has tangible benefits such as higher earnings and lower rates of unemployment than for those without a diploma.2 Despite the importance of these two key indicators, we see ELs consistently lagging behind their non-EL peers on these outcomes.3

This data story presents the most recent data on EL academic proficiency for states and selected urban school districts. It also provides state-level EL high school graduation rates and insights into changes in EL graduation and proficiency rates over time. When interpreting differences across states and between grade levels, readers should keep in mind that states vary in their criteria for which EL students are included in this reporting and in the accommodations provided for EL test takers. These differences can affect outcomes.4 Additionally, it is important to remember that the EL population is dynamic: Students who attain English proficiency are reclassified as non-EL, and those who remain classified as EL over time are more likely to be low-performing.5

The charts are interactive. Hover over or click on chart elements to learn more about specific data points, and where they appear; use buttons to filter charts by grade.

Proficiency on Educational Assessments

At least once every two years since 2003, samples of fourth- and eighth-grade students from across the nation take the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading and mathematics. The assessments are administered the same way across the nation and use the same test booklets. Thus, NAEP results provide a common measure of performance across states and a set of urban districts. Nationally, 14 percent of ELs in grade 4 were at or above proficient in mathematics and 9 percent were at or above proficient in reading on the 2017 NAEP.b, 6 A smaller percentage of ELs were at or above proficient in reading and mathematics in grade 8. For each grade and subject, ELs were far behind the proficiency rates of non-ELs. For example, while one-third of non-ELs were proficient in mathematics in grade 8, just 6 percent of ELs attained this level. Although EL performance on NAEP mathematics and reading assessments has improved overall since 2000, more recent years have shown little change for ELs and non-ELs alike.7

The analyses below use state-level NAEP assessment data to show changes in EL proficiency rates in grade 4 and 8 mathematics and reading since 2009. Additional analyses present EL proficiency rates in reading and mathematics in the 27 school districts that participated in NAEP’s Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) in 2017. Since the percentage of ELs is generally higher in urban districts, analyzing the proficiency rates in these districts may provide insights into the performance of ELs in districts with higher concentrations of ELs.8 Note that the number of urban districts invited to voluntarily participate in the TUDA assessment has changed over time.

NAEP provides a common academic metric across states and a set of urban school districts; however, interpreting EL performance differences across states is complex, and comparisons should be made with caution. State inclusion criteria and testing accommodations for ELs vary.9 In addition, NAEP EL proficiency data were not available for a number of states. In these states the sample of tested EL students was too small to produce statistically reliable estimates and therefore reflects a "reporting standards not met." States that did not meet NAEP reporting standards in one or both years examined (2009 and 2017) are classified in this data story as "Change not available."c

Change in proficiency rates over time

At the national level, there were small increases in the percentage of ELs reaching proficiency in grade 4 and grade 8 mathematics between 2009 and 2017. This percentage increased by 2 percentage points in grade 4 mathematics (from 12 to 14 percent) and by 1 percentage point in grade 8 mathematics (from 5 to 6 percent).10 However, the state-level data reveal considerable variation in changes in EL proficiency rates in mathematics over time. For example, 14 states saw a sizeable decrease (more than 5 percentage points) in the percentage of ELs proficient in grade 4 mathematics. Among these states, five states experienced a decrease of more than 10 percentage points, with Kentucky experiencing the largest decrease (-16.5 percentage points). Four states saw the percentage of ELs who were proficient increase by at least 5 percentage points, with Indiana experiencing the largest increase (11.7 percentage points).

EL proficiency rates in grade 8 mathematics over time were available for fewer states. While 10 states experienced essentially no change (a change between plus or minus 1 percentage point), five states experienced a sizeable decrease. Indiana experienced an increase of more than 5 percentage points.

Similar to mathematics, the percentage of ELs proficient in grade 4 and grade 8 reading increased somewhat over time when looking at the nation as a whole, but there was more variation by state. Overall, the percentage of ELs proficient in reading rose by 3 percentage points in grade 4 (from 6 percent to 9 percent) and by 2 percentage points in grade 8 (from 3 percent to 5 percent).11

However, in contrast to mathematics, fewer states experienced a sizeable decrease (more than 5 percentage points) in grade 4 reading (four states compared with 14 in mathematics). As in mathematics, four states saw an increase of more than 5 percentage points in grade 4 reading, with Ohio experiencing the largest gain of 16.5 percentage points.

About half the states had available grade 8 reading data for 2009 and 2017. Only Virginia experienced a sizeable decrease, and two states experienced an increase of more than 5 percentage points, including Kansas, which had the largest increase of 11 percent.

Proficiency rates by district

The four urban districts in Texas (Dallas, Austin, Houston, and Fort Worth) had more than 20 percent of ELs proficient in grade 4 mathematics in 2017. The EL proficiency rates for these districts were far above the national percentage of 14 percent. Boston, Miami Dade, and Hillsborough County (Florida) also had higher EL proficiency rates than the national rate.d As with the state-level data, urban district EL proficiency rates in grade 8 mathematics were lower than in grade 4. Of the two districts that exceeded the national EL proficiency rate in grade 8 mathematics, only Dallas had more than 10 percent of ELs who were proficient.

Nationally, the EL proficiency rate in grade 4 reading (9 percent) was lower than in mathematics (14 percent).With few exceptions, this was also true for each urban district that participated in the NAEP TUDA in 2017. Seven districts had a fourth-grade EL proficiency rate in reading greater than the national rate (Boston, Austin, Fort Worth, Denver, San Diego, Dallas, and Cleveland). Four districts had an eighth-grade EL proficiency rate in reading above the national rate (Detroit, Dallas, Denver, and Hillsborough County).

Graduation Rates

In 2015–16, 84 percent of students nationwide graduated from high school on time (in four years, and accounting for transfersa). For ELs the rate was 67 percent, up from 57 percent in 2010–11, but well below the rate for non-ELs (85 percent).12 This difference in the graduation rates is especially concerning because we know that those without a high school diploma experience lower earnings and higher unemployment than those with a diploma.

The analyses below use four-year cohort graduation rate data to examine the rate at which ELs graduated from high school within four years compared with their non-EL peers, and how the graduation rate for ELs has changed over time. Because graduation requirements differ across states and states use different inclusion criteria for their EL cohorts, differences in graduation rates should be interpreted with caution.

In 2015–16, there were six states in which less than half of ELs graduated from high school on time. In these states, the EL graduation rate was between 34 and 48 percentage points lower than the graduation rate for non-ELs. Overall, state EL graduation rates varied from a low of 32 percent (Arizona) to a high of 93 percent (West Virginia).

Nationally, the EL graduation rate increased 10 percentage points from 2010–11 to 2015–16. In 31 states, the graduation rate of ELs was at least 5 points higher in 2015–16 than in 2010–11. In California and Texas — the two states with the largest EL populations — the graduation rate increased by more than 10 percentage points.

Wrap Up

Proficiency in core academic subjects such as reading and mathematics is a key indicator that students are learning what is expected at their grade level. A high school diploma demonstrates students’ readiness for postsecondary activities and can lead to more successful employment outcomes than without a diploma.13 While ELs have experienced some small gains in reading and mathematics proficiency nationally as well as increases in on-time high school graduation rates, their performance still lags far behind their non-EL peers.

This story map suggests that national gains in proficiency and graduation rates for ELs smooth out state-level variations. For example, about the same number of states experienced an increase as experienced a decrease in EL proficiency rates in grade 4 reading. Also, while many states experienced an increase in graduation rates from 2010–11 to 2015–16, the increase was not always in a straight line.

Moreover, drawing conclusions about EL performance only from national trends may misrepresent what is happening at the district level. Data from selected urban districts suggested wide variation in EL proficiency rates, with ELs in some districts performing at rates considerably higher or lower than the national rate.