By Ryan Lewis
Note: This brief has been updated as of 7/25/22; one finding based on a small number of students has been removed.
Instructional supports for English Learner (EL) students are not “one size fits all.” Educational opportunities and supports can be more impactful when they are targeted for EL students from different demographic backgrounds (e.g. Fallon et al. ), overlaying language profiles with race/ethnicity, families’ national origins, and cultural factors. A student from a migrant worker family from El Salvador who is multilingual in Spanish and English might benefit from different academic supports than a refugee student from Afghanistan, for example. By learning where these students are concentrated, state policymakers can understand which counties and districts might benefit from similar resources.
Since California is home to over one million EL students from a wide array of backgrounds, a better understanding of variation in the populations of EL students served across the state is essential to improving educational outcomes.
This year, California Analysis for Learning and Engagement (CALE) collaborated with the California Department of Education’s (CDE) Multilingual Support Division to explore data that could inform creating better targeted supports for EL students. Our CDE partners were interested in new demographic profiles of EL students across the state, asking whether there are areas of high concentrations of EL students by: 1) subgroups of race/ethnicity, or 2) country of origin for refugee students. The CALE team identified a 2019-20 national dataset compiled by ED Data Express and utilized Tableau data visualization software to present the best information we could compile to respond to these questions.
First, we mapped the proportions of EL students enrolled across California counties from three different race/ethnicity subgroups that were available in the data and of interest to our CDE partners: Asian, Hispanic, and Pacific Islander. The resulting figures, Maps 1-3, display the proportion of enrolled students within a specific race/ethnicity subgroup from each county’s total population of EL students. Each map is shaded in a gradient from lighter to darker green, indicating the counties in which the proportions of students for that category are lowest to highest. Multiple counties in close vicinity with darker shading can indicate a pocket of relatively higher population concentrations of students within a subgroup in that area.
When interpreting these maps, it is important to consider the data that were analyzed. First, these maps identify higher proportions of specific student subgroups among all EL students, not higher overall counts of these students. For example, a large county such as Los Angeles could serve the highest total number of students within a subgroup, but not show up as a dark shade of green in these maps because the relative proportion of that subgroup among all EL students enrolled in the county is lower than other counties.
The aggregate number of ELs in each county by subgroup, especially those counties with a small number of EL students overall, should also be considered. The CALE team previously broke down the number of ELs in all California counties in Figure 1 of this research brief, and the California Department of Education reports county level totals of EL students by race/ethnicity subgroups here. Higher proportions of a subgroup within a county with few EL students might not always be representative of many students in aggregate.
Map 1 shows that Asian EL students are also enrolled in relatively high proportions in counties throughout California; however, these students are enrolled in Bay Area, northern-central (e.g., Sacramento, Sutter, Butte), and northern-west (e.g., Trinity, Humboldt, Del Norte) counties in the highest proportions.
Map 2 displays that Hispanic EL students are enrolled in high proportions in almost every county of the state, enrolling in noticeably higher proportions in more southern counties. Map 3 shows Pacific Islander EL students are not served in high proportions in many counties; they are highly concentrated in Lassen County in the northeast part of the state.
Turning toward the second research question about refugee students, unfortunately these data do not identify when students come to the state as refugees, nor do they identify country of origin for any EL students born outside the United States. However, the first language of EL students enrolled is provided in these data and can be matched to native languages of countries with higher refugee rates in the United States. The CALE team used the same format from the race/ethnicity maps to display proportions of enrolled students within California counties from three different subcategories of their first language before English: Arabic, which is a native language of many countries including Iraq and Syria; Persian/Pashto/Pushto, a native language/dialect in Afghanistan (among other countries); and Ukrainian/Russian, which likely captures students from Ukraine and Russia (among other countries). Enrolled student proportions for these three groupings of common languages spoken by refugees to the United States subcategories are displayed in Maps 4-6 below.
EL students with a first language of Arabic (Map 4) live in many counties throughout the state, demonstrating their growing concentration in California and the wide distribution of nations across the world that speak Arabic as a main language. Map 5 shows that larger proportions of EL students with a home language of Persian, Pashto, or Pushto are seen in the capital area (Sacramento, Yolo, and Sutter Counties). This area also serves many students with a home language of Ukrainian or Russian (Map 6). In 2019-20, Placer County served the highest proportion of first-language Ukrainian-/Russian-speaking students in California.
Despite some data limitations, these maps provide intriguing hints at the context of concentrated populations of specific EL student subgroups that could be useful to California educators as they work to target resources and improve educational opportunities for EL students across the state. This exercise also showcases the need for more detailed data on English Learners that are refugees to the United States in order to better understand the demographics of this population of students.
 The term “English Learner student” is used throughout this summary, rather than our preferred term “multilingual students,” because this is the term used in the ED Data Express dataset.