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National Data

According to the U.S. Department of Education Web site Ed Data Express, English language learners (ELLs) comprised 8.5 percent of the nation’s K–12 students in 2012-2013.

Data Source

Using data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) Common Core of Data, the Web site Ed Data Express publishes data on the percent of students who are classified ELL at the state and national levels. Data at the district level is available at the Federal Education Budget Project Web site.


Although the exact definition of ELLs varies across the states, these students are typically in the process of learning English and speak a first language other than English at home. More than half of all ELL students were born in the United States.

How to Use the Data

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), public schools must reduce achievement gaps between ELLs and the general student population. Data on ELLs allows you to evaluate your school and compare your demographic data to other schools and districts across the country.

How the details were measured

The data is reported as the percent of students who are ELL. The data cannot be broken down by race, gender, or other student groups.

Limitations of the data

The data is limited because requirements for ELL programs vary widely. In some states and districts, students need only pass an English proficiency test to transfer out of an ELL program. In others, students have to pass a test, collect a certain amount of credits, and obtain parent and teacher approval. (For more information on the varying state and district regulations, see the Education Policy Analysis Archives.) Such varying regulations limit the reliability of the ELL data. You should keep local definitions in mind when comparing schools across states and districts.

Key Questions to Ask

How does mobility affect ELL students?

The families of ELL students may move frequently within and across school districts. High mobility rates make record keeping difficult. You should ensure that the number of ELL students is not under- or over-reported due to mobility. This is particularly important with regard to NCLB, which permits the exemption of recently arrived ELLs (i.e., attended a U.S. school for less than twelve months). For more information on NCLB and the exemption of recently arrived ELLs, see the U.S. Department of Education’s, New No Child Left Behind Regulations: Flexibility And Accountability For Limited English Proficient Students.

Learn More

In its United States of Education, the Center for Public Education describes demographic changes in the nation and how these will affect public schools.

Also see the Center’s Preparing English language learners for academic success to learn about what research says about teaching ELLs.

To calculate total enrollment, Ed Data Express and Federal Education Budget Project rely on data from NCES’s Common Core of Data (CCD), a program that collects basic statistical information from every school in the nation. However, the Web site’s data may not always match exactly with CCD data. More information about the CCD system is available for downloading. You can also download the CCD data, although the CCD data may not always correspond with local data due to differences in data collection and reporting.

A number of other organizations collect data on students who have difficulty speaking English. The U.S. Census Bureau provides some of the most detailed data and makes it available for every county in the nation. You should visit the American Community Survey site to view the information, and then refine your search resulting by entering B16004 into the field for “topic of table name,” which will provide information on children ages five to seventeen who can’t speak English or can’t speak English well.

Additional Resources

Demonstrating success:

Kansas Elementary School Closes The Achievement Gap—This school assessed its literacy programs and closed its achievement gap by providing a literacy framework for all grade levels to follow.

Food for thought at a Vermont elementary school—Hands-on learning experiences help this school’s English language learners to engage and connect to content.