We looked at the top 10 languages spoken by English Language Learners in the state — and why they’re important to measure.
About 10 percent of Washington’s public-school students are English Language Learners (ELL): They’re young (53 percent are in third grade or younger), they’re growing in number, and, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), they bring astonishing linguistic diversity.
What the numbers tell us:
During the 2015-2016 school year, the approximately 130,000 students who were identified as eligible for the state’s Transitional Bilingual Instructional Program spoke more than 220 languages. About 65 percent of these students are Spanish speakers. The next nine languages with the most speakers are Russian, Vietnamese, Somali, Arabic, Ukrainian, Tagalog, Marshallese, Korean and Punjabi. Most English learners are concentrated in the Interstate-5 corridor and in the Yakima Valley, according to a 2015-2016 report from the Bilingual Program.
The rankings of these top languages haven’t shifted much through the years, said Sheri Dunster, OSPI’s Migrant and Bilingual Education Program Coordinator. But the growth within the top 10 linguistic groups is a different story. In the last five years, the number of Arabic and Marshallese-speaking students increased by 103 and 78 percent, respectively, outpacing the growth of prominent languages like Spanish and Russian.
Districts collect this data through a home-language survey given to parents of newly enrolled students. If a parent indicates a child’s primary language is something other than English, the student is then given a screening test. If the student qualifies and enrolls in the Transitional Bilingual Instruction Program, his or her performance as a student is monitored for several years — even after exiting the program.
What the numbers don’t tell us:
Varieties of Chinese, which include Mandarin and Cantonese, account for the primary language of at least 3,000 ELL students in the 2015-2016 school year but were counted separately in the data. In addition, the growth of various language groups could also be attributed to districts doing a better job of reporting data to the state, Dunster said.
Most important, though, this data set doesn’t include the total number of students who speak a language other than English at home and aren’t considered ELL.
Why is this data important?
Language disaggregation allows districts and the state to monitor the performance of specific population groups. It’s a better alternative to relying on race identification to observe achievement, since federal race categories sometimes conceal important demographic distinctions.
In Spokane, the disaggregated data will allow schools to home in on the needs of students from the Marshall Islands, a Pacific island nation which is a part of the controversial Compact of Free Association. Under the agreement, Marshallese citizens can work and live in the U.S. without a visa. The United States also used the islands as a nuclear testing site for 12 years.
Heather Richardson, the English language development director for Spokane Public Schools, said she’s observed a steady increase in the number of Marshallese students for the last decade she’s been in Washington. (There are 502 Marshallese-speaking ELL students in Spokane, more than any other district in the state, according to 2015-2016 data.)
Spokane is one of three districts receiving money from a U.S. Department of Education (DOE) grant in order to identify and close opportunity gaps for Asian and Pacific Islander population groups. Jenny Choi, an OSPI bilingual education program adviser and project director for the grant, said Washington’s disaggregation of Asian and Pacific-Islander language data likely played into the DOE’s decision to award the grant.