A New Perspective on English Learners

What's New

While previous studies about English Learners (ELs) have examined the academic achievement of students at a specific moment in time, a recent study conducted by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research breaks new ground by analyzing the long-term trajectories of 18,000 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) EL students from kindergarten through eighth grade.


The new research found that CPS students who began kindergarten as ELs tended to have similar or better academic achievement compared to their peers who began kindergarten proficient in English. Furthermore, most ELs achieved proficiency on a state English test before entering high school: nearly 80% of ELs achieved proficiency by eighth grade, with 76% of ELs having become proficient by the fifth grade.

Why It Matters

Publicly-reported statistics often appear as though ELs are academically behind their English-speaking peers because they fail to include the vast majority of former ELs who have successfully achieved English proficiency. However, on average, from kindergarten to eighth grade, students who began as ELs actually had similar academic achievement and growth as well as higher attendance compared to students who were never classified as ELs. Additionally, by eighth grade, students who began as ELs and demonstrated English proficiency by eighth grade had higher math test scores and core course grades than students never classified as ELs. These findings dispel some misconceptions regarding the academic achievement of ELs relative to their peers never classified as ELs.


About one-fifth of students who began kindergarten as ELs did not reach English proficiency by the end of eighth grade. This group of students struggled with declining attendance, considerably lower grade point averages, and lower Freshman OnTrack rates. They also entered kindergarten with much lower scores on the state English proficiency exam (ACCESS). Future research could develop early-warning indicators to identify EL students who may be more likely to have difficulty achieving English proficiency so that educators can provide additional support.