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English learners

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Students who are identified as English learners (ELs) can participate in language assistance programs to help ensure that they attain English proficiency and meet the academic content and achievement standards expected of all students. This Fast Fact looks at the number and percentage of ELs in kindergarten and higher grades over time. Data on ELs include students with a current EL identification, but not students who were formerly identified as ELs and no longer are. Note also that data on ELs enrolled in public schools have changed over time. For fall 2014 and earlier years, EL data include only those ELs who participated in EL programs. Starting with fall 2015, data include all currently identified ELs, regardless of program participation. However, the proportion of ELs who participate in EL programs is large. For example, in the 2020–21 school year, 98 percent of identified ELs were served by EL programs. Comparisons over time should be interpreted with caution due to this change in the data reported.

The percentage of public school students in the United States who were ELs increased overall between fall 2010 (9.2 percent, or 4.5 million students) and fall 2020 (10.3 percent, or 5.0 million students). However, this upward trend was disrupted between fall 2019 and fall 2020—during the first school year of the coronavirus pandemic—when EL enrollment fell from 5.1 to 5.0 million students (from 10.4 to 10.3 percent of public school enrollment).1

In fall 2020, EL students represented 10.0 percent or more of public school students in 12 states—half of which were located in the West—and the District of Columbia.2 The states were Alaska, California, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington. The states with the highest percentages of ELs were

An additional 20 states identified at least 6.0 but less than 10.0 percent of their students as ELs, and 13 states identified at least 3.0 but less than 6.0 percent of their students as ELs. The percentage of students who were ELs was less than 3.0 percent in 5 states:

In fall 2020, the percentage of students who were ELs was higher for school districts in more urbanized locales than for those in less urbanized locales. ELs constituted an average of

In general, a higher percentage of public school students in lower grades than of those in upper grades were ELs in fall 2020. For example, 12.9 percent of kindergarteners were ELs, compared with 9.9 percent of 6th-graders, 8.1 percent of 8th-graders, and 5.6 percent of 12th-graders. This is consistent with the expected pattern if students, who are identified as ELs in early grades, tend to obtain English language proficiency by the time they reach the upper grades.3

For the majority of grade levels, the percentage of public school students who were ELs was higher in fall 2020 than just before the pandemic in fall 2019. However, the percentage of ELs was lower in fall 2020 than in fall 2019 in kindergarten and grades 1, 2, 5, and 9. The difference was largest in kindergarten. Specifically, from fall 2019 to fall 2020, the percentage of EL kindergarteners declined by 2.1 percentage points (15.0 to 12.9 percent), compared with changes of half of a percentage point or less in every other grade.

Spanish was the most commonly reported home language of EL public school students in fall 2020 (3.7 million students), representing 75.5 percent of all ELs and 7.8 percent of all public school students. Arabic was the second most commonly reported home language (128,600 students). English was the third most commonly reported home language (124,900 students), which may reflect students who live in multilingual households or students adopted from other countries who were raised speaking another language but currently live in households where English is spoken. The next most commonly reported home languages of ELs in fall 2020 were Chinese (93,300 students), Vietnamese (73,100 students), Portuguese (43,400 students), Russian (37,200 students), Haitian (30,100 students), Hmong (28,700 students), and Urdu (25,200 students).

1 Total public school enrollment also decreased during the first school year of the coronavirus pandemic. For more information, see Public School Enrollment.
2 Categorizations are based on unrounded percentages.
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): 139–156. Retrieved November 25, 2022, from

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics. (2023). English Learners in Public Schools. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from

Numbers in figure titles reflect original numeration from source Condition of Education indicators.

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