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Indicators

English Language Learners in Public Schools
(Last Updated: April 2018)

The percentage of public school students in the United States who were English language learners (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). In fall 2015, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs ranged from 1.0 percent in West Virginia to 21.0 percent in California.

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


Figure 1. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by state: Fall 2015

Figure 1. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by state: Fall 2015


NOTE: Categorizations are based on unrounded percentages.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Local Education Agency Universe Survey," 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 204.20.


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.

The percentage of public school students who were ELLs was higher in fall 2015 than in fall 2000 for all but eight states and the District of Columbia, with the largest percentage-point increase occurring in Kansas (7.5 percentage points) and the largest percentage-point decrease occurring in Arizona (9.0 percentage points). More recently, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs was lower in fall 2015 than in fall 2010 in 14 states, with the largest decrease occurring in Nevada (4.1 percentage points). In contrast, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs was higher in fall 2015 than in fall 2010 in 36 states and the District of Columbia, with the largest increase occurring in Massachusetts (3.0 percentage points).


Figure 2. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by locale: Fall 2015

Figure 2. Percentage of public school students who were English language learners, by locale: Fall 2015


NOTE: Data are based on locales of school districts.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data (CCD), "Local Education Agency Universe Survey," 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 214.40.


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.


Figure 3. Percentage of public K–12 students who were English language learners, by grade level: Fall 2015

Figure 3. Percentage of public K–12 students who were English language learners, by grade level: Fall 2015


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, EDFacts file 141, Data Group 678, extracted July 21, 2017; and Common Core of Data (CCD), "State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary and Secondary Education," 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 204.27.


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


Table 1. Number and percentage distribution of English language learner (ELL) students and number of ELL students as a percent of total enrollment, by the 11 most commonly reported home languages of ELL students: Fall 2015

Table 1. Number and percentage distribution of English language learner (ELL) students and number of ELL students as a percent of total enrollment, by the 11 most commonly reported home languages of ELL students: Fall 2015



1 Detail does not sum to 100 percent because not all categories are reported.
2 Examples of situations in which English might be reported as an ELL student's home language include students who live in multilingual households and students adopted from other countries who speak English at home but also have been raised speaking another language.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, EDFacts file 141, Data Group 678, extracted July 21, 2017; and Common Core of Data (CCD), "State Nonfiscal Survey of Public Elementary and Secondary Education," 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 204.27.


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 K–12 students. Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese were the next most common home languages (spoken by approximately 114,400; 101,300; and 81,200 students, respectively). English was the fifth most commonly reported home language for ELL students (80,300 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. Somali (36,000 students), Hmong (34,800 students), Russian (33,100 students), Haitian (30,200 students), Tagalog (27,300 students), and Korean (27,300 students) were the next most commonly reported home languages of ELL students in fall 2015. The 30 most commonly reported home languages also include several whose prevalence has increased rapidly in recent years. For example, the number of ELLs who reported that their home language was Nepali or a Karen language4 more than quadrupled between fall 2008 and fall 2015 (from 3,200 to 14,100 students for Nepali and from 3,000 to 12,800 students for Karen languages).5

In fall 2015, there were about 3.8 million Hispanic ELL students, which constituted over three-quarters (77.7 percent) of ELL student enrollment overall. Asian students were the next largest racial/ethnic group among ELLs, with 512,000 students (10.5 percent of ELL students). In addition, there were 295,000 White ELL students (6.1 percent of ELL students) and 178,000 Black ELL students (3.7 percent of ELL students). In each of the other racial/ethnic groups for which data were collected (Pacific Islanders, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and individuals of Two or more races), fewer than 40,000 students were identified as ELLs.

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.6


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 https://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2012046.
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): 139–156. Retrieved September 28, 2017, from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/0162373712461849.
4 Includes several languages spoken by the Karen ethnic groups of Burma and by individuals of Karen descent in the United States.
5 Fall 2008 data include all ELL students enrolled at any time during the 2008–09 school year, except data for California that reflect ELL students enrolled on a single date. All other data in this indicator include only ELL students enrolled on October 1 of the corresponding year.
6 Includes only students with disabilities who were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


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