Total English Language Learner Students Continues to Grow

by Brian Kennedy and Dr. Patrick Jones

In the 2017-2018 school year one in five students was enrolled as an English Language Learners (ELL) in  public schools within Benton and Franklin Counties. This is double the state rate. A look at the two counties shows that these high numbers reflect, to a large degree, Franklin County. That county makes up 35% of all the students enrolled in the public K-12 system within the two counties; however, it accounts for just over 60% of all the ELL students. In 2017-18, Pasco school district (SD) alone showed 38.8% of its student body listed as ELL students, contributing to over 55% of the entire ELL student body within the two counties.

Yet, over the entirety of the trend, Pasco SD’s share of the ELL student body has declined by about 5 percentage points, or by a compound annual rate of half a percent. This isn’t because its total ELL student body has declined; in fact, it has increased by nearly 3,000 students over that same time period. Rather, it’s because Benton County has shown a significant increase in the number of its ELL students in recent years.

By the 2017-2018 school year, Benton County ELL numbers had over doubled from 13 years prior, to 4,733 students. At an annual compound rate of 5.4%, this growth surpassed Franklin County’s 3.2%. While Benton County’s share of students who are ELLs now sits just above the state share of 12.6%, thirteen years ago, ELL students accounted for just 7.5% of the student body. Within Benton County, the two largest school districts are leading the charge: Kennewick’s ELL students have increased at an annual rate of 6.6% and Richland’s at 6.9%.

This growth has consequences. Laurie Sarver, secondary bilingual literacy coach in the Kennewick SD, notes that the districts “have had to acknowledge the fact that instruction that works with native English-speaking students does not necessarily work with English learners. English learners must acquire language and content simultaneously.”

What is, for example, the impact on standardized testing and graduation rates? Indicator 4.3.4 shows the share of ELL students who are meeting assessment standards measured by the Smarter Balanced Assessment for English Language Arts. In the combined counties, one sees a challenge: only 11% of the 4th grader ELL students were meeting the standards in the 2016-2017 school year. This is about 5.5 percentage points lower than the state rates.

However, by the time they reach the 11th grade, local ELL students have caught up, and surpassed, the State average. In the combined counties nearly 15% of the 11th grade ELL students are meeting the standard, compared to the state rate of just 10.3%.

Carla Lobos, executive director of curriculum and professional development of the Pasco SD, is certainly familiar with this trend, stating that “while students may not perform on level in English assessments in the beginning years (it takes up to 7 years for students to transition into a new language) we understand the value and importance of also assessing them in their native language in order to get a true understanding of their content knowledge with regards to Washington State English Language Arts and Math Standards.” 11th grade ELL students  still lag the overall share of students meeting the standard in the two counties by wide margin of about 15 percentage points (see indicator 4.3.2). Yet, the vast improvement from 4th to 11th grade test is something to be commended.

How do these scores relate to the graduation rates? Indicator 4.2.6 shows the extended graduation rate (students graduating within five years) for ELL students. Here we can see that within the combined counties for the 2017-2018 school year, just 64% of the ELL students graduated within five years. Although this is just a couple percentage points behind the state average, it is nearly 20 percentage point lower than the overall student body extended graduation rate, found in indicator 4.2.5.

While 64% of students graduating may not seem like a number to be proud of, this rate has been steadily increasing since the 2010-2011 school year where it sat 6 percentage points lower, at 58.1%. Here the shining star has been Franklin County, driven by the Pasco SD. Over the same time period, Pasco moved the rate from 50.6% to just over 65%, a nearly 15 percentage point increase. Ms. Lobos states that a great amount of this success can be attributed to changes in policy and improved staffing. “Pasco SD provides training and support for our staff on high-yield instructional strategies that are specific to the needs of our ELL students. We have made a dedicated effort to work through the challenges of hiring staff that reflects the diversity of our student population.”

Likewise, Kennewick SD, with a current ELL extended graduation rate of about 60%, has increased staffing to support the long term English language learners in the high schools by training existing teachers and para-educators on effective English language instruction. The district is also developing a data tracking system to follow ELL students’ curriculum and has designed academic and language instruction to help ELL students succeed.

Although the standardized testing and the graduation rates may reflect one opportunity for growth, what is missing from those is the beneficial social and cultural impact the presence of ELL students brings to schools. Ms. Sarver emphasized the importance of diversity in the schools to help “promote the idea that differences between people and cultures exist, but different doesn’t mean wrong. All students learn how to more-effectively live in and contribute to a culturally diverse world, which is just as important as learning academic content.”

These comments reflect a learning model that has changed. No longer are schools expecting ELL students to transition to solely English; rather, learning rests on a dual language approach. This is certainly echoed by Ms. Lobos. “The transition is based on a fundamental understanding and value of bilingualism, biculturism and biliteracy”. Students of today, educated in this model, will in the not-too-distant future the teachers of tomorrow.