Skip to main content

English Learners and ESSA’s Four-Year Graduation Rate: An Interview with Julie Sugarman

Julie Sugarman
Thursday, December 5, 2019
English Language Learners

It has been ten years since states began using a uniform definition of the high school graduation rate for federal accountability and reporting. In that time, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and an increased national focus on immigration have raised the profile of English Learner (EL) students in U.S. schools and the need to equitably serve them and assess their academic progress.

We recently spoke with Julie Sugarman about one way that EL outcomes are measured under ESSA. Dr. Sugarman is a Senior Policy Analyst for PreK-12 Education at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy—a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C.—and her recent report on the four-year graduation rate was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Q: Your paper, The Unintended Consequences for English Learners of Using the Four-Year Graduation Rate for School Accountability, finds that one third of states—enrolling about 60 percent of ELs in the country—don't include an extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate in their accountability systems. How does this impact ELs in high school and why is completing high school in four years especially challenging for these students?  

A: Under ESSA, all states must use the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate as one indicator in each high school’s accountability rating. States may use an extended-year graduation rate in addition to the four-year rate to give schools credit for students that graduate high school in five or more years. In some states, the difference is considerable: four states (Colorado, Maryland, Nebraska, and Oregon) saw the graduation rate for ELs in the class of 2015 rise by at least 10 percent by including five-year graduates.

However, in states that only use the four-year rate, students who graduate in five or more years count the same as dropouts and will lower a high school’s accountability rating. As a result, school administrators may respond to district- or state-imposed pressure to raise their four-year graduation rate in ways that hurt ELs. Some administrators may discourage newcomer ELs from enrolling in their high school—especially those that arrive without transferable credits and are likely to age out of the K-12 system before graduating. Other schools—faced with the urgency to get students through the system in four years—may press newcomers with limited or interrupted education too quickly into credit-bearing courses with teachers who are unprepared to meet their needs. 

Many newcomers can excel in U.S. high schools and graduate in four years or less. However, others may benefit from additional time to catch up on literacy and academic skills or need flexibility due to family or work responsibilities. And some students may decide that the track leading to a traditional high school diploma is not for them and choose a high school equivalency pathway (under ESSA, those students are also counted as dropouts for accountability purposes). The unresolved challenge in our current accountability system is how to set high expectations that all students will attain a college- and career-ready diploma in four years, while at the same time not penalizing schools—perhaps even providing them incentives—to enroll students who need more time to complete high school. 

Q: How should these findings be viewed in the context of the larger national debate over immigration?  

A: With an increase in the expression of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States over the last few years, it is more important than ever that the first encounter immigrant students and their families have with schools be a welcoming and supportive one. And with so many recent immigrants—especially those from Central America—reporting highly traumatic experiences in their home countries or in route to the United States, schools should be prepared to be especially flexible with students who need more time or more support to be successful in school. 

Administrators that try to dissuade ELs from enrolling in their high school or who fail to provide proper supports might discourage students from going to school at all. This not only hurts their future economic prospects but may keep them from accessing socioemotional, medical, or legal services that partner with or get referrals from schools.

Q: What are some changes that policymakers and/or district leaders can make in the near term to better recognize these challenges? 

A: Potential changes to ESSA’s accountability framework are likely years away, but in the meantime, state policymakers can consider whether their accountability system has created unintended disincentives to serving ELs, especially older newcomers. States that did not initially include an extended-year graduation rate in their ESSA plan may want to reconsider and amend their plan. Further, state departments of education and local school districts should ensure that all school staff understand the legal rights of English learners and children from an immigrant background when it comes to school enrollment and equal access to a meaningful education.

Q: In your research, have you come across innovative policies or systemic approaches that are helping educators better serve this student population? 

A: We have been very encouraged by the success of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which currently supports 28 schools and academies in New York, northern California, greater Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. In addition to implementing research-based best practices like collaborative learning and native language instruction, they approach program development holistically, working with local educators to build a program model and systems of educator professional development and collaboration to support each school’s vision. Their approach was recently profiled in a Stanford University report, which noted that the 2012-13 four-year graduation rate for New York City Internationals students was 58 percent, compared to 32 percent for all NYC ELs.