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English language learners

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Students who are identified as English language learners (ELLs) can participate in language assistance programs to help ensure that they attain English proficiency and meet the same academic content and achievement standards that all students are expected to meet. Participation in these types of programs can improve students' English language proficiency, which in turn has been associated with improved educational outcomes.1 The percentage of public school students in the United States who were ELLs was higher in fall 2015 (9.5 percent, or 4.8 million students) than in fall 2000 (8.1 percent, or 3.8 million students).2

In fall 2015, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs was 10.0 percent or more in eight states. These states, most of which are located in the West, were Alaska, California, Colorado, Kansas, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Washington. California reported the highest percentage of ELLs among its public school students, at 21.0 percent, followed by Texas and Nevada, each at 16.8 percent. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia had percentages of ELL students that were 6.0 percent or higher but less than 10.0 percent, and 14 states had percentages that were 3.0 percent or higher but less than 6.0 percent. The percentage of students who were ELLs was less than 3.0 percent in nine states, with Mississippi (2.0 percent), Vermont (1.6 percent), and West Virginia (1.0 percent) having the lowest percentages.

In fall 2015, the percentage of students who were ELLs was higher for school districts in more urbanized areas than for those in less urbanized areas. ELL students constituted an average of 14.0 percent of total public school enrollment in cities, 9.1 percent in suburban areas, 6.5 percent in towns, and 3.6 percent in rural areas.

In fall 2015, a greater percentage of public school students in lower grades than of those in upper grades were ELL students. For example, 16.3 percent of kindergarteners were ELL students, compared to 8.2 percent of 6th-graders and 6.6 percent of 8th-graders. Among 12th-graders, only 3.9 percent of students were ELL students. This pattern is driven, in part, by students who are identified as ELLs when they enter elementary school but obtain English language proficiency before reaching upper grades.3

Spanish was the home language of 3.7 million ELL students in fall 2015, representing 77.1 percent of all ELL students and 7.6 percent of all public K12 students. Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese were the next most common home languages (spoken by approximately 114,400; 101,300; and 81,200 students, respectively).

The U.S. Department of Education's EDFacts data collection also sheds light on the population of ELL students who have disabilities. In fall 2015, some 713,000 ELL students were identified as students with disabilities, representing 14.7 percent of the total ELL population enrolled in U.S. public elementary and secondary schools.4

1 Ross, T., Kena, G., Rathbun, A., KewalRamani, A., Zhang, J., Kristapovich, P., and Manning, E. (2012). Higher Education: Gaps in Access and Persistence Study (NCES 2012-046). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from

2 For 2014 and earlier years, data on the total number of ELLs enrolled in public schools and on the percentage of public school students who were ELLs include only those ELL students who participated in ELL programs. Starting with 2015, data include all ELL students, regardless of program participation. Due to this change in definition, comparisons between 2015 and earlier years should be interpreted with caution. For all years, data do not include students who were formerly identified as ELLs but later obtained English language proficiency.

3 Saunders, W.M., and Marcelletti, D.J. (2013). The Gap That Can't Go Away: The Catch-22 of Reclassification in Monitoring the Progress of English Learners. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(2): 139156. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from

4 Includes only students with disabilities who were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). The Condition of Education 2018 (2018-144), English Language Learners in Public Schools.

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