Cooper Robbins

The Impacts of English Language Learning Students on Texas Public Schools

Home to 30 million people, Texas is one of six majority-minority states, with Hispanics constituting a plurality of 40.2 percent of the population as of 2021 (Texas Demographic Center). While natural increases (birth-death ratios) and net domestic migration account for close to 80 percent of this change over the past decade, Texas also has one of the highest immigration rates in the country, attracting both authorized and unauthorized individuals from across the globe (Texas Demographic Center). Without question, the state benefits significantly from the cultural enrichment, dynamic workforce, and younger population profile that accompanies diversity, yet it must also educate a growing number of English Language Learners (ELL). Over 20 percent of Texas’ 5.5 million K-12 students are ELL, a 36.3 percent increase over the past decade, and over 60 percent of the total student body is economically disadvantaged (TEA, “Enrollment”). Moreover, while the demand for specialized language tuition increases, the quality of the state’s education has consistently ranked amongst the lowest in the nation, placing tenth from last in a 2023 study (McCann).

The impact of immigration, particularly unauthorized immigration, on public K-12 education has been politicized to the detriment of serious analysis. To garner a more sophisticated understanding of the impact of ELL students on Texas’ public education system, this study draws on a rich variety of academic sources, including a primary interview with Gilberto Lozano, the Director of Bilingual and ESL Programs at Conroe Independent School District, the ninth largest ISD in the state and one that has experienced a rapid growth in ELL students. The paper opens with a scholarly literature review, providing a broad contextualization of the state’s minority population, an analysis of the impacts of ELL students in public schools, and a discussion of limited programmatic solutions. The review explores the role key agencies and legislations, focusing on the Texas Education Agency and Federal assistance through Title III, Part A. Together, the primary and secondary data indicate that Texas’ high population of ELL students constitutes a complex, multidimensional educational challenge. However, there is no evidence they exert negative impacts on native students in terms of either resources or the wider learning environment. On the contrary, incumbent students appear to benefit, academically and culturally, from the inclusion of immigrant learners.

Literature Review

Texas must educate 1.1 million ELL students, 89 percent of who are Hispanic (Unidos). Over 75 percent of all Latino K-12 students and 85% of all ELL students are economically disadvantaged (Unidos). Consequently, Hispanic ELL students typically confront layers of disadvantage, and their sizeable numbers are likely to impact the state’s public education system in significant ways.

Research by Margarita Pivovarova and Jeanne Powers investigates strains on incumbent students created by influxes of immigrant children. Drawing on quantitative evidence, the authors contest politicized “claims by elected officials that immigrants consume a large share of social benefits.” They conclude, “there is no direct evidence that the increased share of immigrant students in the U.S. has negatively affected the educational outcomes of third-plus generation students.” More specifically, Pivovarova and Powers contend, “Once we controlled for race, gender, socio-economic status, and school contextual factors, the achievement gap between first-generation students and their second- and third-generation peers disappeared.” Anti-immigrant arguments about competition over scarce educational resources and detrimental peer effects are not substantiated by Pivovarova and Powers’ data.

Cross-national studies examining the impacts of high immigration on native students produce varied results. Peter Jensen’s review of international research finds that while large influxes of immigrants can strain educational resources in many countries and lower test scores of native students, “Increased immigration to the US has a small but positive net effect on the high school completion rate of native children.” Similarly, David N. Figlio and Umut Özek’s study on the impact of refugees on incumbent students found, “little evidence that a sizable influx of refugees has short-term negative consequences on native students” (19). Daniel L. Duke and Martha Jacobson likewise observe overall positive spillover effects for native students, noting “a small positive net effect on the high school completion rate of native students.” While Jennifer Hunt concluded, “natives’ probability of completing 12 years of education is increased by immigration,” within this overarching trend, there are differences within subgroups (25). Black students’ probability of completion is slightly higher when compared to non-Hispanic whites. However, native Hispanic students’ chances of success are slightly diminished by immigration (Hunt 26). The results of these studies show little evidence for politicized narratives that immigrant students negatively impact native students although deeper research into subgroup effects is warranted in Texas given that 53% of Texas school children are Hispanic (TEA, “Enrollment”).

With an understanding of the general impact of immigrant populations on public education, it is important to subset ELLs and independently evaluate their influence on schools. This is not a simple task. Suzanne Lane and Brian Leventhal note how ELL testing modifications can render accurate comparison difficult. The nature of the modifications, such as shortening reading passages or adjusting the content being tested, may impact the construct being examined for the sake of the accommodation. That said, several researchers have attempted to isolate important variables. Welton and Williams established that there is a higher likelihood that students with developing English competency will drop out of high school. However, correlation is not causation, and the authors’ additional research offers more diversified and nuanced results. Ainhoa Fennol’s research on the disparity of test scores between native and migrant students reveals that although there is difficulty in separating language barriers from other socioeconomic obstacles, English proficiency exerts profound influences on test performance. It is worth noting that applied mathematics showed no such deviation in results (11).

Julia Shaftel’s research analyzes the impact of linguistic characteristics in mathematics and their impacts on ELL students and those with disabilities. Her findings show, “ELL groups were not disproportionately affected by language characteristics in these test items” (105). Mathematics exist as a comparatively mechanical subject; therefore, variations in test performances within an ELL sample clearly signify, as Fennol stated, that educational achievement has more nuanced contributors than linguistics alone. Overall, the research shows that English language competency affects general educational outcomes, if not all subject competencies, although linguistic barriers cannot be designated as solely responsible given measurement difficulties and reinforcing barriers to success.

The 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Plyler v. Doe ensures the provision of public education for all students. However, this base requirement does not necessarily ensure equal opportunity. Immigrants are disproportionately likely to live in large, under-performing, urban school districts, where the ELL experience is magnified by variables affecting struggling public schools more generally. Daniel L. Duke and Martha Jacobson address the issue of size in public schools. Texas educates 5.5 million children, something that affects the adaptive capacity of educational systems. As Duke and Jacobson state, “it is more difficult to change the course of a low-performing high school of 2,000 students and 125 teachers than it is to raise performance at an elementary school of 500 students and 30 teachers” (34). Renovations or improvements to a school system grow directly more comprehensive and expensive in response to size. Beyond physical size, large, complex systems also prove problematic for implementing modifications. For example, “Changes that might be supported by some departments often are opposed by others,” depending on the area of study (35). In conjunction with the impact of size on education, a deficit in accountability within institutions negatively influences the quality of education.

Researchers Anjale Welton and Montrischa Williams observe how limited requirements to maintain accountability for high-minority schools inevitably restrict progress and “de-empathize college rigor and readiness” (182). This disadvantage is correlated with increased dropout rates, leading to the popularized label of “dropout factories” (Pandolfo 2011). It is noteworthy that students attending high-minority schools who are “Black, Latina/o and/or English Language Learners” are particularly adversely affected by high-stakes exams that serve as entry barriers to higher education (181). Institutional responses often exacerbate the problem with “punitive school reform labels and school closure practices” (Welton and Williams 183).

Deficits in accountability have historically been a serious issue in Texas’s major metropolitan areas where ELL students are concentrated. An audit of schools within the Houston Independent School District showed that “of the 5,500 students who left these schools during the 2000-2001 academic year, 3,000 were dropouts misclassified as transfers to boost the district’s graduation” (Thurston et al. 324). Texas has implemented a menu of initiatives to help correct low-performing high schools, including supplemental programs to support disadvantaged and ELL students. Jacqueline R. Stillisano and her associates highlight the example of GO Centers which aim to facilitate a school culture oriented towards graduation and the pursuit of higher education. The authors “noted a high degree of student-use of the enhanced GO Centers and very positive attitudes towards [their] importance…in building a school culture that encourages students to attend college” (299).

Another successful program includes the Early College High School system. This was created in “an effort to bridge the gap between secondary and postsecondary education and create greater access to high quality postsecondary education for all students” (Woodcock and Beal 56). Accounts of the program taken by JoDee Baker Woodcock and Heather Olson Beal reveal that students willing to work hard and improve their academic situation typically had positive reviews of the ECHS (64-71).  While supplemental programs oriented towards student success are a potentially powerful solution for both ELL and native students trapped in low-performing schools, more encompassing interventions are needed to change systematic inequities in outcomes.


Collectively, the scholarly literature indicates that while ELL students, as well as general immigrant populations, do not inherently create negative impacts for incumbent students, they are more likely on an individual level to underperform and have an increased probability of exiting public high school prior to graduation. After evaluating this dynamic and institutional responses through reports from the Department of Education and the Texas Education Agency, the following analysis offers key findings from a semi-formal interview with CISD’s ESL Specialist Gilberto Lozano. Together, the evidence elucidates the confluence of influences—legislative, financial, and cultural—impacting ELL student performance in Texas.

Education Trends for ELL Students From 2009 To 2017

Reports from the Department of Education indicate that while recent performance trends amongst ELL students[1] have experienced a net growth, much remains to be done regarding educational attainment for these students. For example, Texas was ranked third for positive educational growth amongst grade four ELL students from 2009 to 2017, specifically regarding mathematics. This national placement indicates a comparatively large measure of success for bilingual and ESL programs in the state. However, while Texas achieved a 7.4 percent positive change (from 19.9 percent to 27.3 percent), 72.7 percent of these ELL students did not meet state requirements for mathematical proficiency in 2017. Grade 8 students showed even poorer performance, with a net change of 1.3 percent from 5.7 percent to 7 percent. These statistics indicate that a staggering 93 percent of grade 8 ELL students did not meet state requirements for mathematical aptitude.

Unsurprisingly, ELL underperformance in reading is dramatic across the state. Grade 4 ELL students experienced an increase in reading proficiency of 3.7 percent from 2009 to 2017. However, this uplift only improved outcomes from 8.1 percent to 11.8 percent. Grade 8 students had a similar 3.8 percent change from 0.8 percent to 4.6 percent proficiency in English. In total, a monumental deficit of 88.2 percent and 95.4 percent was recorded for the two sampled grades in 2017. Collectively, statistics from the Department of Education indicate that while the educational attainment of ELL students in Texas is experiencing a positive change, the numbers remain deeply concerning.

On a secondary level, graduation rates reveal a similar development, yet remain well below their native-born peers. Texas ELL students from 2015-2016 graduated from high school within four years at a rate of 73.7 percent, even when accounting for transfers (Department of Education). While this trend indicates a 0.4 percent increase from the 2014-2015 school year, it is still a notable 16.7 percent beneath the four-year graduation rate of non-ELL students. Overall, for every non-ELL student, nearly three ELL students do not complete high school in four years. Although Texas outperformed the 66.9 percent high school completion average achieved by all fifty states combined, 1.1 million students—over 20 percent of the entire K-12 student body—is a significant number to leave behind.

Texas Education Agency Protocols for ELL Students

            The Texas Educational Agency oversees ELL student placement, instruction, and overall integration into educational institutions, and one out of every five ELL students in the United States are educated under their jurisdiction (TEA, “Generation 26” 8). While 90% of non-English speakers in the state speak Spanish, there are over 120 languages spoken in Texas public schools (TEA, “English Learners in Texas Fact Sheet”). To address the educational needs of these students, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires active measurements in place to appropriately undergo “EL identification…placement in program services…monitoring of language acquisition…reclassification of English learners as English proficient…[and] post classification monitoring” (TEA, “Generation 26” 12).

The process for identification demonstrates a thorough, nondiscriminatory process for all students that incorporates the household language of individuals and appropriate steps to take based on parental consent. Testing is undergone if the home language is not English, at which point scoring demonstrates the ability of the student to integrate into General Education Classrooms or the need for further monitoring and instruction (TEA, “Generation 26” 13). Upon necessary placement, individual students are then monitored in their progression of English competency until a reclassification is deemed necessary.

Beyond comprehensive identification, classes to address recognized needs provide a variety of instructional measures to best accommodate different students, each with varying levels of participation. Bilingual Education Programs, whose goal is to develop true bilingual competency, had a 45.7 participation rate in the 2019-2020 school year (TEA, “Generation 26” 25). English as a Second Language programs, which incorporate a student’s native language as a gateway to English competency, yielded a 50.1 percent participation rate in the same school year. Apart from Alternative Language Programs and a complete lack of provided services due to parental denial, which bore a net 15.1 percent, Bilingual and ESL programs are the most popular. The data on outcomes, however, is not altogether promising. Writing for Rice University’s Kinder Institute, Lizzy Cashiola and Dan Potter note the significant increase in the number of ELLs being reclassified as LTELS (long-term English learners who have failed to gain proficiency within five years). As Figure 1 below shows, these students are growing at a significant rate and, according to Cashiola and Potter, are “particularly at risk for multiple negative educational outcomes, including lower scores on state and national tests, greater risk of dropping out of high school, and a significantly lower likelihood of attending college.”

Potential explanations for the declining effectiveness of English proficiency programs in Texas include budget cuts, reclassification policies, and the inability to recruit bilingual teachers (Cashiola and Potter).

Supplemental Assistance from Federal Sources

Beyond the protocols of the Texas Education Agency, Federal assistance has a significant budgetary impact on ELL programs. Specifically, Title III, Part A is a crucial legislative contribution to Federal assistance for ELL students. As a broad summary:

Title III is a part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA). The purpose of Title III, Part A is to help ensure that English learners (ELs) attain English proficiency and meet state academic standards. Generally, Part A of Title III provides federal funding to assist state educational agencies (SEAs) and local educational agencies (LEAs) in accomplishing this (Office of English Language Acquisition 1).

This act provides supplementary funding designated for the educational attainment of ELL students, thereby ensuring that native students are not deprived of resources. Overall, the programs established by Title III, Part A yield a 96.5 percent rate of national participation by ELL students, demonstrating a generally successful uptake (Office of English Language Acquisition 2). Within Texas specifically, 99.8 percent of the identified ELL students participated in these programs during the 2015-2016 school year. Given these numbers, Title III, Part A is widely considered a critical asset in assisting ELL students without diminishing resources for native, English-speaking students.

Interview with Gilberto Lozano

To further understand Texas’ growing ELL student body and institutional responses, a semi-formal interview was conducted with the Head of Bilingual and ESL Programs for the Conroe Independent School District: Gilberto Lozano. CISD is the ninth largest district in the state, incorporating 67,490 students, 38.5 percent of who are Hispanic with 17.2 percent enrolled in bilingual and ELL programs during the 2021-2022 school year (The Texas Tribune). While the ISD received a B accountability rating from the state in 2022, it boasts a 96.5% graduation rate and several high performing schools. Compared to the state average of 60.7 percent, 40.5 percent of CISD students are economically disadvantaged and 41.2 percent are considered at-risk of dropping out, compared to 53.3 percent statewide. The graduation rate for Hispanic students (95.9 percent) is just 1 percent below the 96.9 percent of White students. In terms of college-readiness, 21.3 percent of Hispanic students take AP/IB courses, compared to 29.3 percent of Whites and a significant 62.7 percent of Asians (The Texas Tribune). While there are significant variations within the ISD, overall, it does not face the breadth or depth of challenges experienced by high-minority, urban schools. That said, the TEA flags CISD as a fast-growing district (5.23 percent growth rate), and it has experienced a notable increment in ELL students (TEA, “2020-2021 Fast Growth Districts”).

In line with the broad consensus of the scholarly literature, Lozano chose not to identify a singular identifiable problem for ELL students in his district, saying, “I can’t identify one particular thing that I can say like we’re lacking curriculum, lacking funding” (Personal Communication). Despite having “definitely seen an influx of a large number of immigrant students coming into our district…the effects of it have not tremendously impacted our district in the sense of resources, staff or anything like that.”

One reason Lozano provides for a mitigated impact is Title III funding for ELL students, stating that, “The Federal government provides federal funds, Title III bilingual funds, that are specifically allocated for these particular students. They also provide immigrant funds specifically for immigrant students.” This supplementation from the Federal government not only increases the resources provided for students with limited English competency, but also preserves the resources required to properly educate other students. Lozano reinforces this point when he contends, “resource wise, it’s almost like they’re separated per se, so you don’t borrow from one thing to give to another. So, therefore, students don’t have less resources because of immigrants.” This effectively reduces negative impacts, considering that ELL students require unique resources, as stipulated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, to achieve satisfactory educational attainment.

Lozano explains the importance of how educational resources are distributed to avoid problematic overlapping. For example, secondary ELL students are placed in sheltered classrooms that allow them to remain focused on the specialized curriculum designed to achieve true bilingualism. He reinforces the inaccuracy of “a stigma that is classified out there with bilingual students, that bilingual education is more of a second-class education.” Not only does he maintain that ELL standards are academically rigorous, he also notes how immigrant students culturally enrich native students when he states, “a beautiful thing that happens in this tapestry” of cultures interconnected throughout Texas Public Schools.

Although ELL students do not drain the budget or resources dedicated to native students, they still demonstrate lower educational attainment then their non-ELL counterparts on key measures. Lozano attributes this to is the linguistic barrier needed to translate skills between teachers and fellow students, even if the skills have already been developed. Lozano offers a hypothetical example:

If [a student] took physics in Russia, we want to make sure we give them credit for physics in the US. Because in terms of language development, they have the skills. They know physics, they just don’t know the language. So, building on that is critical, whether it be extracurricular or whether it be academic.

This deficit in communication is critical in educational settings and although it may vary from student to student based on English fluency, there is a consistent effect felt across the body of ELL students that requires linguistic instruction and reinforcement. In addendum, Lozano adds, “I’ve seen a lot of second language learners that do better than our monolingual kids, kids who have been here since Pre-K and know the language.” While there is an individual component to particular outcomes, the quantitative data suggests the CISD’s ELL students do incur communication deficits with respect to conveying predeveloped skills and learning new ones.

In addition to communication challenges, the varied and sometimes limited educational backgrounds of students is a deterrent to educational attainment. Lozano specifically cites Title I campuses, of which CISD has 18 out of 34 elementary and four out of nine intermediate schools, where, “students…from impoverished communities in Central America and Mexico… come to us, with very… little schooling.” Such circumstances provide a unique challenge because they require both bilingual and academic instruction when the student is already at a substantial disadvantage compared to students who have received consistent schooling throughout their childhood. Students from these environments are more likely to drop out and seek work. Lozano states that although not in large numbers, “we see kids come in and they drop out because their focus is not education. Their focus is more going to work and start making money.” Inadequate early years preparation and a cultural emphasis on work over education are much harder to combat than simply providing additional linguistic support. Individual and cultural barriers compound the mechanics of language in immeasurable and significant ways. It is noteworthy that Lozano did not identify any contagion effects that might negatively impact native students’ commitment to education.

Discussion and Conclusions

Taken together, the results of this study indicate that ELL students do not damage the educational attainment of native students or the learning environment. There is little evidence of a source drain or detrimental cultural impact on the wider student body. On the contrary, immigrants appear to bring cultural enrichment to the school environment and even increase the performance of native students. Federal funding allows for targeted programming without undercutting the needs of students without linguistic barriers. Still, given Hunt’s findings, further research into subgroup effects, particularly Texas’ native Hispanic students, is warranted.

The problem remains that ELLs significantly underperform their native counterparts. While this is less dramatically the case in relatively successful districts, such as CISD, where the compounding problems of concentrated poverty are less severe and graduation rates remain robust, ELL students are still less likely to graduate or enroll in college-level programs. Moreover, statewide, ELL students suffer a plethora of compounding disadvantages that create seemingly insurmountable barriers to educational success. Texas educates nearly a fifth of all ELL students the country, most of who arrive with less education than native students, less educated parents, less economic resources, and a cultural commitment to early paid employment. Federal funding and state programs, including experimental college-readiness initiatives, are important contributors to dismantling barriers. Still, the data on test scores, graduation rates, and long-term English learning remains concerning. Further budgetary investments, as well as a focused recruitment on bilingual teachers will help, but the educational experience in multi-barrier school districts is a complex and persistent one.

In conclusion, while further research is required to gain a fuller picture of ELL impacts, one stereotype can be laid to rest: ELL students do not damage native student achievement or the wider educational environment. On the contrary, quantitative data and expert accounts suggest they enrich the educational experience of incumbent students.

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[1] This briefing from the Department of Education and other selections refers to the students as ELs (short for English Learners). For consistency, they will continue to be referred to as ELL students.

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