Graduation Data Shows States Struggle with English Learners

Half of states graduate less than 60 percent of their students with limited English proficiency.
by , | December 6, 2012

For the first time last week, the U.S. Department of Education released standardized, state-by-state four-year graduation rate data. And while half of states graduated at least 80 percent of their students, an encouraging figure, the numbers also demonstrated that states are struggling with English language learners.

Twenty-four of the 47 reporting states had a graduation rate for students with limited English proficiency that was 60 percent or lower for the 2010-2011 school year. Arizona bottomed out at 25 percent, followed closely by Nevada at 29 percent. Georgia (32 percent) and Alabama (36 percent) also struggled significantly. Vermont and South Dakota, which both graduated 82 percent of their English language learners, were the only states to top the 80 percent mark—which most states met or neared for their overall student population.

It’s partly demographics. But the figures also imply that public education systems might not be meeting the needs of a population, frequently Hispanic, which has bedeviled policymakers for years and continues to grow. The Education Department, in its notes on the data, suggested that the disparity across states shows that the policies within states could have an influence on whether English language learners succeed.

Arizona and Alabama, for example, were taken to the Supreme Court by the White House for immigration policies that were viewed as anti-immigrant. In Alabama specifically, as Governing reported last year, the immigration policies led to a sudden surge in absences among Hispanic students.

“Demography plainly influences state educational performance. But state-by-state disparities of such magnitude suggest that demography is not destiny in determining student achievement and attainment,” the department wrote. “State policies matter.”

As has been widely reported, the Hispanic population is expected to only grow: from 52 million in 2011 to 132.8 million in 2050, up to 30 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau. The graduation data and the projected population increases are a reminder that states must address the portion of the U.S. citizenry that speaks another language at home.

As the National High School Center, a non-profit advocacy group, noted in a brief on improving state policies for English language learners: “For too many English language learners, graduation from high school, let alone college, remains but a dream.”

Overall, Iowa scored the highest graduation rate (which the department has adjusted for number of students entering ninth grade four years ago, students transferring in and out, emigration and deaths) at 88 percent. Vermont and Wisconsin graduated 87 percent of their students, followed by Indiana, New Hampshire, Tennessee, North Dakota, Texas and Nebraska at 86 percent.

The District of Columbia ranked as the worst state in high school graduation at 59 percent. Nevada (62 percent), New Mexico (63 percent), Georgia (67 percent) and Alaska (68 percent) rounded out the bottom five.

Data for Kentucky, Idaho and Oklahoma was not reported for the 2010-2011 school year. Governing has compiled the Education Department data in the searchable table below.

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