The best of students, the worst of students

California’s best and worst students “are likely to speak English as a second language,” I write in Education Week, which has open access this week.

In California, children from non-English-speaking homes who learn English fluently before they start school become bilingual stars, outperforming every other group on every academic measure.

Similarly, those who achieve English proficiency in elementary school outperform native English-speakers through the 7th grade. Students reclassified as proficient are more likely to pass the high school exit exam on their first try. They also reach higher: Half of reclassified students, but only a third of native English-speakers, take the sequence of college-prep courses required by the state’s public universities.

They work harder. And they represent a select group that’s jumped through a lot of hoops to graduate from English-language-learner, or ELL, status.

Unfortunately, Jose Average often gets stuck on the ELL track, especially if he attends a school that doesn’t track students’ progress closely. It won’t help if all his learning problems are attributed to language.

About 40 percent to 60 percent of those who start school in California with limited English skills are never reclassified as proficient. A 2007 report on the state’s exit exam looked at 10th grade ELLs: A majority had been enrolled in U.S. schools since kindergarten or 1st grade; fewer than a third had arrived in the 6th grade or later.

The drop-out rate is high for long-time ELLS like Jose.

About Joanne


  1. How much of this is Asian vs. Hispanic immigrants? Are the high achieving 2nd language kid Asian while the low scoring bilinguals are Hispanic?

  2. Asian kids (except for Hmong speakers) tend to reach proficiency in English much more quickly than Hispanic kids and are also more likely to be judged fluent in English when they start school. However, 85 percent of English Learners in California are Hispanic; the achieving group includes plenty of Hispanic students.

  3. I wish schools had this information when I was in school 40 years ago. My whole family spoke Chinese but when I started school, the school insisted that I only speak English at home and at school. They felt being bilingual would hurt my education. I was the only one in the family who doesn’t speak or understand Chinese and I regret it so much. Thank goodness people are starting to pay more attention to students who speak other languages.