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How long does it take Hispanic English learner students to reach English proficiency?

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By Lacy Wood | November 20, 2018

English learner (EL) students are one of the fastest growing student groups in Texas. In 2017, the state had the nation’s second-highest percentage of EL students, with 16.8 percent of students enrolled in Texas public schools categorized as English learners.

Of the EL students in Texas, 90 percent are Hispanic. As a group, these students often lag behind their peers in high school graduation and postsecondary attainment. A new video from Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Southwest explores factors that may influence EL students’ time to proficiency in learning English and meeting academic benchmarks. Drawing on REL Southwest’s 2017 research report Time to Proficiency for Hispanic English Learner Students in Texas, the video discusses how educators can use administrative and proficiency data to establish realistic timelines for EL students, inform systems to keep students on track, and identify and support EL students who are potentially at risk of failing to meet progress benchmarks.

The video features Rachel Slama, Ph.D., the study’s principal investigator; David Kauffman, Ed.D., executive director of multilingual education at Austin Independent School District; and Gracie Guerrero, Ed.D., assistant superintendent for multilingual programs at Houston Independent School District. Both Drs. Kauffman and Guerrero are former members of REL Southwest’s English Learners Research Alliance.

What did the study examine and what were the key findings?

The REL Southwest study highlighted in the video examined the time it took grade 1 EL students in Texas public schools to first reach key education outcomes, including attaining English proficiency and satisfactory performance on reading and mathematics state assessments. The study was conducted in partnership with the English Learners Research Alliance, a research alliance from the previous REL cycle which included Texas educators and policymakers as well as research and support specialists from REL Southwest. This alliance sought to gain a better understanding of the long-term achievement of Hispanic EL students in Texas.

The study identified three key subgroups of EL students who were most at risk of failing to make adequate progress toward proficiency.

Texas Hispanic EL student subgroups most at risk of not attaining proficiency

  • Students who enter grade 1 with a beginning level of English proficiency
  • Students who receive special education services
  • Students who enter grade 1 over age

Dr. Slama explains that “it is important to understand [these factors] because the English learner subgroup is such a diverse heterogeneous population. Not all ELs will meet the same educational milestones at the same time. By those milestones in the study, we’re talking about attainment of English proficiency and meeting reading and math standards as defined by the state’s assessments.”

>> Read the report to learn about more key findings from the study.

How can you apply these findings?

To help educators apply the findings, the video provides takeaways for both teachers and district and state education leaders.

Use administrative and EL proficiency data to identify students who are potentially at risk of not making adequate progress toward attaining proficiency. Differentiate supports for these students.

District and state education leaders
Recognize that it takes more time on average for some EL student groups to reach English proficiency. Consider designing targeted supports and interventions for the at-risk populations listed above.

How can the findings be used for planning and decisionmaking?
According to Dr. Kauffman, “Educators in Texas would benefit from this work because it really can shape the instructional programs and supports that we’re providing to the schools and the students that they serve. Texas is unique because it has such a large population of Hispanic English learners [and] a long history of a bilingual educational program. . . . Texas data around English proficiency and also the achievement of our English learners is critical. It can really help us to customize and evaluate how our programs are working and to improve them.”

How well do the findings apply to states other than Texas?
Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), each state must set realistic yet ambitious goals for EL students’ progress toward and attainment of English language proficiency and academic achievement. This study is an example of how states and districts can use historical data to inform realistic and ambitious timelines for EL students to reach these educational milestones, and the ways in which EL students’ unique characteristics may shape those timelines.


U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics. (2017). Common Core of Data.  Local Education Agency Universe Survey, 2015–16. See Digest of Education Statistics 2017, table 204.20. Retrieved from

About the video series

The video is the second installment in a two-part series on EL students’ development of English language and academic proficiency. The first video, Cultivating Students’ Home Language: The Role of Spanish Proficiency in Learning English, explores the findings from a 2018 REL Southwest report on EL students in New Mexico. 

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Author Information

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Lacy Wood

Principal TA Consultant | REL Southwest