ESSA May Harm English Learner Graduates

A report released by the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, The Unintended Consequences for English Learners of Using the Four-Year Graduation Rate for School Accountability, provides a profile of high school ELs and examines causes of dropout, how graduation rates are calculated, and the effects of these rates on students and instructional models.

High school graduation rates have been used to evaluate school effectiveness and impose consequences on struggling schools under federal law for nearly two decades, alongside other measures of academic achievement and school quality.

The report finds that reliance on a school’s four-year graduation rate for federal performance-accountability purposes can create negative consequences for English learners (ELs), as well as the schools that serve them, since these students often require additional time to develop academic proficiency in English and complete the full range of courses required to obtain a high school diploma. While federal accountability regulations dating back to the No Child Left Behind Act have helped close opportunity gaps for ELs by requiring measurement of their educational progress, a one-size-fits-all accountability system fails to take account of the success of students who complete high school after the four-year mark and can thereby punish schools that successfully serve such students.

States are required under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to submit school accountability plans; these include each school system’s rate of getting students to graduate within a four-year period beginning at the start of ninth grade. While states can supplement their calculation of the four-year graduation rate with an extended-year rate, 16 states and the District of Columbia have chosen not to. Collectively, these states serve 60% of the nation’s estimated 5 million ELs.

Considering ELs are more likely than other students to graduate after a fifth or sixth year, their educational completion is excluded when only a four-year graduation rate is used. And because the stakes associated with the use of graduation rates for school accountability are high—including risks to educators’ reputations and employment—use of a four-year rate can generate perverse incentives for high school administrators to turn away recent immigrants when they attempt to enroll.

Media reports have documented that older immigrant and refugee teenagers have been turned away from traditional high schools in recent years and told to enroll in adult or alternative education programs. That’s despite laws in most states allowing young people without a high school diploma to enroll in free public schools until the age of 20 or 21. Beyond turning away prospective students who might drag down the four-year graduation rate, the report examines how emphasis on that rate can affect how schools design EL instructional programs.

“By privileging a narrow definition of a high school graduate—one who graduates in four years or fewer with a standard diploma—the federal accountability system may disproportionately categorize English learners as failures or, more concerningly, incentivize schools to push such students into inappropriate educational pathways or not to serve them at all, for fear of the consequences attached to being labeled as a school in need of improvement,” said MPI senior policy analyst Julie Sugarman, who wrote the report.

The report is available at


  1. Perhaps even more concerning are the non-native English speaking students who get through four years of high school in a breeze just because they have what it takes in the very limited education system we currently operate in, which now it becomes clear, is not critical thinking ability since we are so quick to hold back language learners and reward native speakers. Why is it that freshmen college students entering directly out of high school are some of the worst performing, non-critical thinking students? What is being valued by high school teachers as the criteria for someone who deserves to graduate and move on with their life? Humans come into awareness and learn to think critically at different rates; for many, regardless of English language ability, that doesn’t happen until well into adulthood, and for others maybe never at all. The only thing that EL students have in their way is a language barrier. So if we think that they need 5 or 6 years to become educated in whatever we define as standard high school knowledge, we need to also be holding everyone else in high school for 5 or 6 years too because I think we all know EL students aren’t usually the problem later on. A non-native English speaker, especially of refugee status, has a lot more life awareness they have been confronted with than their privileged monolingual good-at-math-class-and-got-a-personal-pan-pizza-for-reading-a-book counterparts. Sugarman has a good point – we are categorizing EL students as failures. But rather than blaming the ESSA legislation, I think the ESSA legislation is precisely what exposes what a poor job we are doing in teaching and assessment practices so as to only cater to a specific population – the one that learned to gratify our outdated and un-reflective educational structure.

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