Subscribe Today
Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Questioning the Long-Term English Learner Label: How Categorization Can Blind Us to Students’ Abilities

by Karen D. Thompson - 2015

Background/Context: The label long-term English learner (LTEL) is increasingly used to describe students who have been educated in the United States for many years but have not met criteria to be considered proficient in English. Though created to draw awareness to the unique needs of a particular group of students, the LTEL label has acquired strongly negative connotations, with descriptions of LTELs often focusing on students’ perceived deficits. Limited empirical analysis of achievement and other outcomes among this group of students has been conducted, and little is known about the impact of the LTEL label on students’ educational trajectories.

Purpose/Objective: This study explores the characteristics and educational trajectories of students considered long-term English learners. In addition, the study explores the costs and benefits associated with the LTEL label. In particular, the author examines how prolonged classification as an English learner impacted students’ opportunity to learn and explores whether and how the LTEL label was linked to stigma for students.

Research Design: Using case study research methods, this study focuses on the experiences of three students in a medium-sized California school district who were considered long-term English learners. Analysis of district-wide, longitudinal data contextualizes the experiences of the three focal students.

Findings/Results: First, findings provide evidence of the heterogeneity of academic achievement, course placement, and long-term outcomes among students to whom the long-term English learner label is applied. Approximately half of students considered LTELs in the district had met at least some of the criteria necessary to be considered English proficient in at least one year. For instance, one focal student remained an English learner throughout middle school solely because of her scores on the state standardized math test. Meanwhile, 35% of students in the district who were considered LTELs also qualified for special education services because of documented disabilities. Second, findings indicate that there was a loose coupling between the LTEL label and specific services for students in this district. Among the three focal students, all could be considered LTELs, but their course placements and the academic rigor of their courses varied dramatically in high school. Finally, students experienced courses designed exclusively for English learners at the secondary level (but not at the elementary level) as stigmatizing.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Given the substantial variation among students to whom the Long-Term English Learner label is applied, this research suggests that educators and policymakers should use the LTEL label with caution. For example, “intervention” courses designed for LTELs at the secondary level may need to be reconsidered, taking into account the unique needs of the particular students the courses are intended to serve. Given the stigma that students associate with EL-only courses at the secondary level, the conditions under which such courses can function as empowering rather than stigmatizing spaces represents an important area for future research.


Recently a new label has entered the world of those who work with nonnative English speakers in U.S. schools: long-term English learner (LTEL). This term was coined to distinguish newly arrived immigrants from students who have been educated in the United States for many years but have not met English proficiency criteria. Although definitions vary, the label is typically applied to students who have been classified as English learners for at least six or seven years (Menken & Kleyn, 2010; Olsen, 2010). Researchers have found that although language support services were typically designed with newly arrived immigrants in mind, from one-third to one-half of students labeled English learners in secondary school have attended U.S. schools for many years, in some cases for their whole lives (Menken & Kleyn, 2010; Olsen, 2010).

The LTEL label was created in an effort to improve educational outcomes for students, drawing educators awareness to the unique needs of a particular group of students (Freeman, Freeman, & Mercuri, 2002; Menken & Kleyn, 2010; Menken, Kleyn, & Chae, 2012; Menken, 2013; Olsen, 2010). Yet descriptions of LTELs often depict this group of students as having little to no literacy skills in either language (Olsen, 2010, p. 23), disengaged with school, and ready to drop out (Kinsella, n.d.; Menken et al., 2012).

By closely examining the experiences of three students who experienced prolonged classification as ELs, contextualized by analysis of characteristics of students with the LTEL label district-wide, I analyze the implications of the LTEL label and document the variation among students to whom the label is applied. As Link and Phelan (2013) assert, any label is a package deal, entailing both costs and benefits. Like other labels, the LTEL label potentially provides access to services (i.e., benefits) but also potentially creates stigma and constrains choices (i.e., costs). Here, I examine the costs and benefits experienced by students to whom the LTEL label was applied. Specifically, I examine how prolonged classification as an English learner impacted students opportunity to learn and explore whether and how the LTEL label was linked to stigma for students. In so doing, I argue that by blaming students low literacy skills for the fact that they have not been reclassified as proficient in English more quickly, the long-term English learner label can blind us to students experiences, their abilities, and their successesas well as to variation among students to whom this label has been applied.


In the landmark 1974 case Lau v. Nichols, the Supreme Court held that school systems must take affirmative steps to teach English to those not yet fluent in the language while also providing access to the general curriculum. Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides local education agencies with supplemental funding for the special services that Lau requires for English learners. Under Lau, schools must identify students who require language support services. When a student enters school, her parents typically must complete a Home Language Survey. If the students parents indicate that they speak a language other than English at home, the student must then take an English Language Proficiency (ELP) test. If the student scores below the established English proficiency criteria, the student is considered an English learner (EL) and, under Lau and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act (1974), must be provided with language support services (see Thompson, 2013, and Gándara, Moran, & Garcia, 2004, for a more detailed explanation of Laus requirements and how the decision has been interpreted and enforced). The student retains the EL label until she meets specific criteria established by the local school district, typically involving attaining particular scores on standardized tests (see Tanenbaum et al., 2012, for a more detailed description of requirements for ELs under ESEA). Once she meets these criteria, the student sheds the English learner label and in California where this study takes place, is then labeled Redesignated Fluent English Proficient (RFEP). Within this system of identifying and providing services to ELs, there is great variationin Home Language Surveys, ELP assessments, services provided to students, and the criteria students must meet to shed the EL label (e.g., Abedi, 2008; Goldenberg & Rutherford-Quach, 2012; Ragan & Lesaux, 2006). The labels of EL and RFEP are somewhat different from many other labels assigned to individuals in that they are assigned and used almost exclusively by those within the education system. The EL and RFEP labels are linked with but not identical to observable differences in individuals and acquire their meaning through complex interactions among social, cultural, historical, and legal forces.


Students who remain classified as English learners for prolonged periods of time are now acquiring an additional label: long-term English learner. While intended to highlight the unique needs of students educated in U.S. schools for many years who have not yet met English proficiency criteria, the LTEL label has acquired other connotations. Olsen (2010) describes characteristics of students to whom the Long-Term English Learner label applies as follows:

Long Term English Learners have weak academic language and significant gaps in reading and writing. . . . Generally, . . . Long Term English Learners lack rich oral language and literacy skills in scholastic English needed to participate and succeed in academic work. They exhibit little to no literacy skills in either language, and often only a skeleton academic vocabulary in their home language. (p. 23)

In some cases, it is not just long-term English learners language and literacy skills that are considered lacking. Kinsella (n.d.) states, When we look at how they're doing in school, they tend to be very passive and disengaged learners in the classroom. Olsen (2010) adds that some LTELs have internalized a sense of failure and no longer see themselves as belonging in school (p. 26). The outlook for this group of students is typically considered grim. Menken et al. (2012) state that the vast majority of LTELs in high school experience educational failure, making them a particularly high risk population for grade retention and dropout (p. 136). While the LTEL label was created in an effort to improve educational outcomes for students, descriptions of long-term English learners such as those above can make students with the label seem like hopeless cases, as the authors of research on LTELs are aware. Menken critiqued aspects of prior research about LTELs, including her own, for perpetuating deficit views of these students by focusing solely on their perceived academic shortcomings (2013, p. 438).


While the LTEL label has gained currency in U.S. schools, more research is needed on how this label has impacted students. To address this gap in the research literature, I use case study research methods to examine the experiences of three LTELs in one California district, while also contextualizing these students experiences through analysis of longitudinal, district-wide data. I explore the characteristics of students to whom the LTEL label is applied. In addition, I explore the costs and benefits associated with this label. In particular, I examine how prolonged classification as an English learner impacted students opportunity to learn and explore whether and how the LTEL label was linked to stigma for students.


To analyze the experiences of long-term English learners, I draw from key concepts in the literature on: the social construction of categories; labeling theory, particularly processes involved in stigma; and the construction of opportunities to learn. Here I describe the particular concepts from each body of literature that I use as analytic tools.


Researchers from a diverse array of disciplines, including anthropology, biology, history, and sociology, have long demonstrated how categories used to label differences among individuals, such as gender, race, and disability are socially constructed (e.g., Haney-López, 1994; West & Zimmerman, 1987). As Smedley and Smedley argue when analyzing the social construction of race, such categories are means of creating and enforcing social order, a lens through which differential opportunity and inequality are structured (2005, p. 24). The existence of the label English learnerand by extension the label of long-term English learnerdepends on the construct of language proficiency. Butlike race, class, and disabilitylanguage proficiency is a slippery construct. What marks a speaker as proficient in a language? Which matters more, accuracy or fluency? In what contexts should an individual be able to demonstrate proficiency? After reviewing a variety of ELP assessments in use across the United States, Solórzano (2008) found that the tests had different definitions of proficiency and thus assessed proficiency quite differently. Researchers have long discussed the variation in the criteria used to determine whether students get classified as English learners and the variation in the criteria used to determine when ELs achieve English proficiency, both across states and across districts (e.g., Abedi, 2008; Hill, Weston, & Hayes, 2014; Linquanti, 2001). Here, I demonstrate how the particular reclassification criteria that a district selects construct the LTEL category.


Link and Phelan (2013) argue that any label is a package deal, entailing both costs and benefits. Analyzing the experiences of individuals with mental illness, they demonstrate that being labeled as experiencing a particular mental illness may provide access to specific services and treatments (i.e., benefits) but may also lead individuals to experience stigma and discrimination (i.e., costs). I analyze the costs and benefits associated with prolonged classification as an English learner, exploring the services provided to students in the long-term English learner category and students perceptions of these services.

Much has been written about stigma since Goffmans (1963) seminal book on the topic. In analyzing the costs and benefits associated with the LTEL label, Link and Phelans (2001) conceptualization of stigma serves as an important analytic tool and thus bears quoting at length:

In our conceptualization, stigma exists when the following interrelated components converge. In the first component, people distinguish and label human differences. In the second, dominant cultural beliefs link labeled persons to undesirable characteristicsto negative stereotypes. In the third, labeled persons are placed in distinct categories so as to accomplish some degree of separation of us from them. In the fourth, labeled persons experience status loss and discrimination that lead to unequal outcomes. (p. 367)

Building from this conceptualization, I examine the extent to which students labeled LTELs experienced stereotyping, separation, status loss, and discrimination. As Link and Phelan (2001) argue, individual differences in personal, social, and economic resources also shape the life circumstances of persons in stigmatized groups, thereby producing substantial variation within stigmatized groups in any outcome one might consider (p. 380). Thus, I examine how district reclassification criteria and the policies and practices related to course placement that the district enactsas well as differences in the personal, social, and economic resources of studentsproduce differences in the consequences associated with having the LTEL label. In particular, I examine variation in the stigma experienced by students and in students opportunities to learn.


To further analyze the costs and benefits of the LTEL label, I also use analytic tools from scholarship on students opportunities to learn. In her seminal work on tracking within American high schools, Jeannie Oakes (1985) conceptualized students opportunity to learn as influenced by factors including: the amount of time spent on academic work (as opposed to behavior management, for example); the cognitive complexity of academic tasks; and teachers expectations and goals for students. She demonstrated pervasive differences in opportunities to learn across different tracks.

Here, I extend recent scholarship that applies the opportunity to learn framework to analyze differences in English learners classroom contexts (Callahan, 2005; Dabach & Callahan, 2011; Kanno & Kangas, 2014). English learners may be tracked into particular curricular streams (Estrada, 2014). In some cases, ELs may be educated separately from fluent English-speakers, in segregated, low-track classes that Valdés (2001) called an ESL ghetto. Particularly at the secondary level, when students schedules are constrained by the class period structure, if ELs are required to enroll in English Language Development classes, this may limit their ability to enroll in rigorous college-prep core content classes (Callahan, 2005; Callahan, Wilkinson, & Muller, 2010; Harklau, 1994; Kanno & Kangas, 2014). Furthermore, if ELs are required to enroll in curricular streams in which they also take some or all of their content classes, such as math, social studies, and science, separate from their fluent-English-speaking peers, this linguistic isolation may hinder their English acquisition (Valdés, 2001). Additionally, research suggests that these separate content classes designed for ELs, sometimes referred to as sheltered classes, may be watered-down versions of the mainstream content classes in which fluent English speakers are enrolled, covering fewer topics in less depth (Dabach, 2014).

To explore the costs and benefits associated with the LTEL label, I explore how this label affected students opportunities to learn. First, I analyze how students prolonged classification as English learners affected the curricular streams in which students were enrolled. Then I analyze how students access to fluent English-speaking peers, the cognitive complexity of course content, and teachers goals for students, as well as students goals for themselves, varied among students who experienced prolonged classification as English learners.  



To explore the characteristics, achievement patterns, and experiences of LTELs and the costs and benefits associated with the LTEL label, I use case study research methods. These methods allow me to examine the experiences of a small number of students in great depth, illuminating variation among students to whom the LTEL label has been applied. I focus on the experiences of three former students who were in fourth grade when I taught them and who were seniors in high school during data collection. To contextualize these case studies, I first conduct descriptive analysis of district-wide, student-level, longitudinal data, enabling me to describe the characteristics and academic achievement patterns of LTELs across the district.



No prior research has analyzed characteristics and achievement patterns of LTELs across an entire district using student-level, longitudinal data. To fill this gap in the research literature, I analyze district-wide, student-level longitudinal data from 20032004 through 20102011. I use the difference between the current school year and the date students first enrolled in U.S. schools, along with students language proficiency status over time, to determine the number of years students have been classified as English learners. Using the definition of long-term English learner most common in the research literature (Olsen, 2010), I consider students classified as ELs for seven years or more to be LTELs. In order to examine the characteristics of LTELs, I include a variety of variables at the individual and family level. At the individual level, I have information about students gender, ethnicity, and home language. I also have information about whether students qualified for special education services and if so, their particular disability. At the family level, I have information about parents level of education and students eligibility for free or reduced price lunch, which serve as proxies for socioeconomic status. To understand LTELs academic performance, I have students overall scale scores and proficiency levels on the California English Language Proficiency Test (CELDT). Similarly, I have students scale scores and proficiency levels on the California Standards Test (CST) in English Language Arts.


As part of a larger project to analyze long-term outcomes for students initially classified as ELs, I interviewed and shadowed 15 of my former students, all of whom were in fourth grade when I taught them and were seniors in high school during data collection. Ten were students to whom the LTEL label could have been applied. Rather than providing a broad overview of themes emerging across all students, I chose to select three students enrolled in different tracks and programs within the district whose experiences illustrated different patterns that emerged.

As with most case studies, I combine data from multiple sources, including interviews, documents, and observations. As Yin (2009) points out, the use of multiple sources of evidence is particularly important in case studies, where concerns about validity and reliability run high. Using multiple data sources allows researchers to triangulate data, thus increasing validity. For example, I can compare students descriptions of their English acquisition over time with their test scores on standardized measures of English proficiency. (See Appendix D for an example of how I triangulated data from multiple sources.)

I face a difficult task because I seek to learn about students experiences over time, but all of my qualitative data collection took place during a single school year. It would, of course, be preferable to follow students over time. However, qualitative studies that follow students from kindergarten through 12th grade are exceedingly rare, due to financial and logistical constraints. Therefore, I employed a variety of strategies to address the limitations created by the retrospective nature of my study. First, students school records, often numbering well over 100 pages each, provide a longitudinal picture of their development. I had access to much more information than is available in most large-scale quantitative datasets, including students transcripts, comments from students teachers dating back to kindergarten, records of meetings when school personnel had concerns about students progress, and student writing samples. Second, in my initial interviews with students and parents, I asked the interviewees to create a visual representation of the students educational path via a timeline, noting important experiences, both in and outside of school. Researchers have found that timelines and life history calendars aid in recall of information and generate useful data, even with young children (Crivello, Camfield, & Woodhead, 2008; Nelson, 2010).

I conducted two full interviews, lasting approximately one hour each. In the first interview, I worked with students to complete the timeline described above, focusing on experiences both in and out of school that had shaped them into the people they are now. In the second round of interviews, I asked students to add on to our timeline by telling me more about other events occurring during their senior year that shaped them. I also got updates from students about their plans following high school. In my interviews with students parents, which I typically conducted between each of my two student interviews, I showed parents the timeline their children and I had created together and had them add on, elaborate, and/or contest the details it contained. I also asked their opinions of their childrens schools over time. Following each interview, I wrote field notes documenting the context in which the interview was conducted and details from the interview that stood out to me. (See Appendices A and B for interview protocols for students and parents, respectively.)

In addition to these interviews, I shadowed each student for two full days to better understand students high school context. I wrote detailed ethnographic field notes throughout my days spent shadowing students, paying special attention to the tasks in which teachers asked students to engage. I also interviewed students teachers to understand their perspectives on students school experiences, again writing field notes after each interview. (See Appendix C for the teacher interview protocol.) As I refined my research questions to include a focus on students course placement and opportunity to learn, I spoke with four district staff members knowledgeable about course placement policies.

To analyze my data, I first employed an open coding process to note topics that emerged from my interview transcripts and observation field notes (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995), generating a list of more than 400 initial codes. From this initial list of codes, I noted themes that emerged, initially grouping the codes into 45 categories, which I in turn organized into 10 themes. It was at this point that students course placement emerged as a rich area for exploration. I then carried out focused coding around this core theme. (See Appendix D for detailed information about coding procedures related to this theme, including the specific codes used, examples of data to which each code was applied, and an example of how data from multiple sources were integrated for this analysis.) Simultaneously, I created systems to analyze students school records. First, I photographed key documents from students cumulative folders, compiling these photographs into digital albums of approximately 3060 documents per student, and tagging each photo for relevant content. Second, I obtained printouts of students transcripts and test scores. To analyze these photographs and printouts, I created a spreadsheet that recorded important details from students records. It was during this iterative data analysis process that I refined my research questions to focus on the costs and benefits of the LTEL label, particularly its impact on stigma and opportunity to learn. Throughout the data analysis process, I documented the analytic choices I made, establishing a chain of evidence. In addition, to ensure validity and reliability of the codes used during data analysis and to verify conclusions, I also presented data and claims to research groups and to school district staff.

Throughout data collection and analysis, I reflected on the role that my own positionality played in the process. My positionality as a white, middle class, native English-speaking woman who is the former teacher of the students in my sample undoubtedly shaped the data I collected in profound ways. While I suspect my pre-existing relationship made students and parents more forthcoming in some regards, I also suspect that my identity as a former teacher was never far from students and parents minds. They performed for me, both in our interviews and on the days I shadowed them, perhaps emphasizing school-related influences on their development more than they might have with a different interlocutor, for example. While triangulation of data can begin to address the reliability concerns this raises, researchers positionality invariably influences data collection and analysis.


Most residents of the San Francisco Bay Area drive past Bayside on the freeway without a thought, not realizing it is a city at all.2 Just off the freeway, stretches of tract houses comingle with warehouses, strip malls, and industrial suppliers in the flatlands, while older, larger homes pepper the hills overlooking the Bay. This land, like the rest of the region, was originally inhabited by the Ohlone people. Then, in rapid succession, it became part of Spain, Mexico, and the United States, as wars and treaties determined its fate. The first residents of the area other than the Ohlone were Spanish speakers, part of the original group of colonists sent by Spain to explore the area. Despite the towns history of Latino residents, there was a brief period when it became a primarily white enclave, notorious for redlining African Americans interested in buying homes. With the increase in immigration from Latin America and Asia in the second half of the 20th century, however, the towns racial and ethnic composition diversified again, as the taquerías, panaderías, and bubble tea shops along the main commercial streets attest. Home to just one comprehensive high school, the towns students from all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds attend school together. Half of the districts students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and one-quarter are identified as English learners, about two-thirds of whom speak Spanish as their primary language. Spanish-English bilingual programs have existed in several Bayside elementary schools for many years. All case study students participated in the Baysides bilingual program in elementary school.  



Before analyzing the experiences of LTELs in Bayside, it is useful to examine the reclassification criteria that the district established. As previous research demonstrates, criteria for reclassifying students as proficient in English vary widely across districts (e.g., Abedi, 2008; Hill et al., 2014; Linquanti, 2001). Bayside has relatively stringent reclassification criteria, which it has modified over time (see Table 1). Bayside employs the four criteria established by the state Education Code for determining when a student should be reclassified: (1) assessment of English proficiency; (2) comparison of performance in basic skills; (3) teacher evaluation of student academic performance; and (4) parent opinion and consultation.

The California Department of Education has elaborated on these criteria to define specific minimum performance standards for the first two criteria (California Department of Education, 2003). For the first criterion, assessment of English proficiency, students must attain an overall score of Early Advanced (Level 4) or Advanced (Level 5) on the California English Language Development Test. In addition, students must have scores at the Intermediate level (Level 3) or higher in each of the domains assessed by the CELDT: Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing. For the second criterion, comparison of students performance in basic skills, students must score at the Basic (equal to a scale score of 300 or higher) or mid-Basic (equal to a scale score of 324 or higher) on the English Language Arts (ELA) portion of the California Standards Test (CST), the states content assessment.

In addition to these criteria recommended by the state, Bayside has added a variety of other measures, as the state allows. These additional measures are shown in italics in Table 1. Perhaps most notably, during the years under analysis, Bayside included students scores on the Math section of the CST as a reclassification criterion. In addition, beginning in 20092010, the CST-ELA reclassification criterion was raised to 324, above the minimum level (300) established by the state but in line with approximately 60%70% of districts statewide (Hill et al., 2014). Students in Bayside who did not meet all of these criteria after attending U.S. schools for many years were considered LTELs. Since reclassification criteria vary across districts and across states, a student considered an LTEL in Bayside might have been reclassified in a different district. Since Baysides reclassification criteria were relatively stringent, this created a context in which relatively high-achieving students might be considered LTELs.  

With these reclassification criteria in mind, I now analyze characteristics and academic achievement for students who remained classified as ELs for seven years or more. I then present case studies of three students, seeking to understand the costs and benefits they experienced as a result of their prolonged classification as ELs.


Note: DRA/QRI=Teacher-administered reading assessments. CAHSEE=California High School Exit Exam. Criteria in italics are not required by the state but were added by Bayside.

Characteristics of LTELs in Bayside

As a starting point for understanding the characteristics of LTELs in Bayside, it is useful to understand the size of the LTEL population in the district. Prior research has found that one-third (Menken & Kleyn, 2010) to one-half (Olsen, 2010) of secondary ELs have been classified as ELs for seven years or more. From 20032004 through 20102011 in Bayside, between 63% and 70% of ELs in grades 612 had been classified as ELs for seven years or more, higher than reported in the current research literature. On average, the total number of LTELs in grades 612 in Bayside during these years was approximately 500 students.

Next, a comparison of demographic characteristics for LTELs in Bayside to other students in the district reveals several key differences between LTELs and other students. The data presented here is for the 20102011 school year; analysis of other years in the dataset (20032004 through 20092010) produced similar results. Table 2 displays means for a variety of demographic characteristics for specific groups in 2010-11. The first column shows means for English-only (EO) and Initially Fluent English Proficient (IFEP) students. (IFEP students speak a language other than English at home but scored proficient on the CELDT at school entry.) No students in this group were ever classified as ELs. The second column shows means for all EL and RFEP students except for LTELs. All students in this column are either current or former English learners, but none have been classified as ELs for seven years or more. The third column shows means for LTEL students. Comparisons between columns 2 and 3 merit particular attention. The percentage of students that are Spanish speakers is much higher among LTELs than among other current and former ELs (82% vs. 62%), while the percentages of Cantonese, Filipino, and Vietnamese speakers are lower among LTELs than among other current and former ELs. LTELs have parents with lower education levels (1.99 vs. 2.31) and come from families more likely to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (80% vs. 69%) than other current and former ELs.

Most strikingly, 35% of LTELs qualify for special education services compared to just 9% of other current and former ELs. Further analysis revealed that LTELs most frequently qualify for special education services because of learning disabilities. While learning disabilities are a common form of disability for other students as well, a much higher proportion of LTELs have learning disabilities (22% for LTELs compared to 6% for EOs and IFEPs and 3% for ELs and RFEPS who are not LTELs). Although LTELs comprise only 5% of the total district population, they comprise almost one-fourth of all students in the district with learning disabilities.


Academic Achievement of LTELs in Bayside

While the analysis above provides a basic picture of LTEL characteristics in the district, it is also important to examine academic achievement. As noted previously, the existing research literature typically describes LTELs as academically struggling students. However, analysis of district-wide, longitudinal, student-level data reveals a more complicated picture.

By definition, long-term English learners must have scored below established cut scores on at least one criterion considered as part of the reclassification process. Thus, it is fair to say that LTELs are typically not excelling in school, scoring highly on all measures of academic achievement. However, as Table 1 shows, in order to be reclassified, students must meet many criteria in one year. This leads to the possibility that students may meet most criteria but miss one or two. To investigate LTELs patterns of achievement on two key reclassification criteria, the CELDT and CST-ELA, I first simply calculate percentages of students considered to be LTELs in 20102011 who had met particular reclassification criteria at least one time during their years in the district, over the eight years the dataset spanned. As Table 3 shows, 51% of LTELs had scored Proficient on the CELDT Overall in at least one year,3 and 49% had scored Basic or above on the CST-ELA in at least one year. A more stringent reclassification cut score of 324 on the CST-ELA went into effect in 20092010 for students in grades 3-8. Nineteen percent of LTELs met this criterion in at least one of the eight years under analysis. Further analysis revealed that many LTELs had met the CELDT and CST-ELA reclassification criteria multiple times. Thirty percent of all LTELs had scored Proficient on the CEDLT in at least two years. In addition, 23% of all LTELs scored Basic or above on the CST-ELA in two or more years.


Based on the demographic and academic performance analysis for LTELs, two key patterns emerge. First, more than one-third of LTELs qualify for special education services. Which, if any, labelLTEL and/or student with disability actually apply to each individual within this group of students seems an open question. Second, many LTELs have met or exceeded at least some reclassification criteria. Half have met CELDT overall reclassification criteria in at least one prior year. A similar proportion have met the CST-ELA reclassification criterion (300 or above) in at least one year. Thus, many LTELs in Bayside have substantial English literacy skills, contrary to depictions in much of the literature.4


To further explore characteristics of LTELs and the costs and benefits of this label, I turn to case study data. For each of the three students, I first present findings describing the students language acquisition trajectory, course placement, and opportunity to learn. I then analyze findings, reflecting on the costs and benefits of the LTEL label for each student. Specifically, I examine how classification as an EL impacted students opportunity to learn and explore how the LTEL label was (or was not) linked to stigma for students.


Researcher: It seemed like there were concerns about considering whether she might qualify for some special education services going back to elementary school. There was talk of maybe testing her, but it seems like that didn't happen until towards the end of middle school. I was curious if that was a common story, that you still have students . . . not getting services until later, and how you think that played out for her?

Ofelias Teacher: Yeah, it's pretty common, especially for English language learners.  There's the whole thought, is it because English is their second language? Or is it really a disability? In fact I've even see students qualify in high school. The debate before high school was, We think it's because they don't understand the language, but really it turns out they have a disability in addition, which makes it hard for them to understand the language and grasp the educational concepts. I don't think that it was necessarily detrimental for her to start getting the services then because depending on how services are used, it can go either way. Where some students, the earlier they start, the more behind they get, whereas other students, if they're able to keep up a little bit and get more moderate services, they actually do better and have better outcomes. (Interview with Ofelias teacher and special education case manager, 5/31/2011)  


Ofelia is a bubbly, warm, caring young woman, always making plans. As her mother says, she is someone who when she loves someone, she loves them with an open heart (Interview, 1/10/2011, authors translation from Spanish). She is extremely social, and her cell phone is never far from her hand. She is expert at surreptitiously texting during all sorts of classroom activities (as are many of her classmates). She is often looking for advice about various boy problems. One serious relationship with a 24-year-old man ended during her senior year, but she is happy to have found a new love interest. She, her mother, and her special education teacher/case manager all describe how she became more focused on graduating from high school over time. According to Ofelia, her break-up intensified her focus on school even more. I guess it made me stronger to keep up going to school, going to college, instead of putting my boyfriend on top of everything, putting myself, she explained (6/14/2011). With her goal of high school graduation attained, her next goal is to complete culinary school, where she enrolled after high school, and open a bakery with her mother, who she has been helping bake and decorate cakes for weddings, quinceañeras, and other parties for several years now.    

Ofelia is the only student in my larger sample of 10 LTELs who was never reclassified as proficient in English. She is also the only student who qualified for special education services. As the district-wide LTEL data analysis shows, 35% of LTELs in Bayside have documented disabilities, like Ofelia. As my interview with Ofelias special education teacher/case manager indicates, her records demonstrate that concern about whether she might have a learning disability dated back to elementary school. Before she was formally referred for testing to determine eligibility for special education services, school personnel held five formal meetings because of concern about Ofelias academic achievement, two in second grade, one in third grade, one in seventh grade, and one in eighth grade. Notes from these meetings jibe with the pattern Ofelias teacher/case manager describes above. Teachers and administrators wondered whether Ofelias academic difficulties were the result of a learning disability or due to lack of proficiency in English. A note from a formal Student Study Team meeting in second grade lists Cognitive problems as a question the school personnel have about Ofelia (1/24/2001), and a note from a Student Study Team meeting in third grade reads, Learning problems? (yet hard to determine because of language) (12/05/2001). Of course, it is impossible to know what Ofelias English acquisition trajectory would have looked like if she had qualified for special education services earlier, but many who interacted with her wondered whether cognitive processing issues might be influencing her learning, including her English acquisition. Yet she received no intervention for these cognitive processing issues until the end of middle school. Ofelias teacher/case manager explicitly describes the dilemma that arises when determining whether students should be separated out for targeted instruction based on perceived needs. Although she is discussing this in the context of special education, the same dilemma applies to ELs, as well. Does tracking students into separate courses curtail or expand their opportunities to learn? Ofelias teacher/case manager suggests that in the case of special education, the answer is contextual, depending on the student and the types of services they receive.

Born in the San Francisco Bay Area to parents who both immigrated to the United States from Mexico as adults, Ofelia remembers knowing virtually no English when she started elementary school. The only thing my mom would show us was the only thing she would know, like hi or bye, she recalls (11/30/2010). School records indicate that Ofelia also scored low on measures of Spanish proficiency at kindergarten entry and was labeled a limited Spanish speaker based on results from the Idea Proficiency Test (10/15/1998).

Although she received English Language Development instruction throughout elementary school, Ofelia considered herself a beginning English speaker at the end of elementary school, explaining, Probably that time, thats when they tell you how the colors are, or like the fruits or vegetables, they tell you how to say that. I have to say that I only learned the easy stuff in English (11/30/2010). Writing samples from throughout elementary school suggest this is an understatement. In two pieces from third grade, for example, Ofelia composed narratives describing past events, such as a time when she felt scared (Narratives dated 4/25/2002, 6/5/2002). While these compositions contain many non-standard spellings that can make them challenging for the reader to decode, Ofelia clearly could do much more with English than name colors, fruits, or vegetables. Ofelia seems to downplay her own language abilities, perhaps as a result of having internalized her classification as a student still in the process of acquiring English. As Link and Phelan (2001) argue, individuals can internalize negative stereotypes associated with a particular characteristicin this case, the stereotype that English learners are not simply in the process of acquiring English but are less intelligent than fluent English speakers. Ofelia never scored above the Intermediate level on the CELDT overall (see Table 4). It remains unknown whether she would have scored higher during the elementary and middle school grades if she had received accommodations as part of the testing process, which would have been possible if she had qualified for special education services earlier.


Note: Through seventh grade, students received a combined CELDT Listening and Speaking score. Beginning in eighth grade, they received separate scores for the Listening and Speaking sections of the CELDT. For CELDT and CST scores in years prior to reclassification, numbers in bold indicate that students did not meet reclassification criteria on that particular assessment, while numbers not in bold indicate that students did meet reclassification on the assessment.

In middle school, Ofelia was enrolled in sheltered courses for math, science, history, English, and reading. At the secondary level, English learners are often enrolled in sheltered content-area classes, intended to provide English learners access to the core academic curriculum by employing a variety of scaffolding approaches (Callahan, 2005; Valdés, 2001). While research on students perceptions of sheltered classes and their achievement in these classes is limited, one recent study suggests that both students and teachers can feel that sheltered classes are stigmatized, that students in such classes are considered not just less proficient in English than other students but less intelligent, as well (Dabach, 2014). However, in Ofelias case (and in the case of the other two case study students), it appears that she was part of a cluster of English learners within a mainstream class, taught by a teacher certified to work with ELs. While the courses on her transcript are labeled sheltered, they were actually multi-rostered classes that included fluent English speakers, as well. Unfortunately, we have no information about the extent to which English learners interacted with fluent English speakers within these classrooms, or whether/how the teachers might have differentiated curriculum and instruction for students in these courses. This course placement practice, however, is distinct from the completely separate ESL ghetto that has been described in the research literature, in which ELs are physically separated from fluent English-speaking peers in courses with less rigorous academic content (Callahan, 2005; Dabach, 2014; Harklau, 1994; Valdés, 2001).

Ofelia was enrolled in English Language Development classes designed just for English learners in middle school. In addition, Ofelia was also enrolled in some classes designed just for students with disabilities. In eighth grade, the year that she qualified for special education services, she was placed into a special section of algebra designed for students in special education. In lieu of an ELD class in eighth grade, Ofelia was placed in a reading intervention class for students reading more than two years below grade level. Her overall CELDT scores remained at the Intermediate level throughout middle school (see Table 4), though she remembers her English proficiency as developing greatly.

In high school, Ofelia was placed in a special day class for students with learning disabilities. Her schedule also included a reading class with other students in the special education program. Ofelia did have some classes with students outside of special education, such as P.E. and art, but the bulk of her day was spent with other students who also qualified for special education services. However, her senior year, Ofelia was mainstreamed for all of her classes, meaning that she participated in the lowest track of the general education courses (labeled College Prep [CP] at Bayside High) but received support from her special education case manager and accommodations from her teachers. As her case manager notes, We don't usually get kids going from the reading program their freshman year to general ed English (5/31/2011).

Ofelia was clearly aware of the changes in her courses over time:

Ofelia: I had English, for three years I had easy English, until this year, Im taking CP.  It was like a higher movement, but right now Im okay, Im passing it with a B. Its a little bit harder because of the words, but the teacher that I have is . . . a good teacher, and he shows me how to understand words and how to put them in sentences.

Researcher: Before this year, before you started taking CP, you were taking easy English classes, how did you feel about those classes?

Ofelia:  About the easy English? It was good, it would be a different kind of book, and pictures, but I like to read, so it would help me read. My teacher said, Do you want to try [the CP classes]?  I said, I do want to try. She said, If not, well take you out.  But since theyve seen that Ive been there, theyve just left me there. (11/30/2010)

Coining the term easy English to describe her English classes within the special education program, Ofelia describes these classes as helpful. Combined with Ofelias tendency noted earlier to downplay her own language abilities, this perhaps provides additional evidence that Ofelia has internalized her classification as a student still in the process of acquiring English, for whom easy English might be appropriate. However, she seized the opportunity to try normal English classes. Importantly, she describes course placement as something about which she can express a preference but not exercise control, stating, Theyve just left me there.

Another defining feature of Ofelias high school experience was her participation in a vocational education program during her junior and senior year. Like other students in the program, Ofelia completed four class periods of coursework at her local high school each day, then boarded a bus to the regional vocational education center, and completed two periods of coursework there. In addition to this coursework, students in the vocational program completed an internship during their senior year. Ofelia participated in the Medical Assistant program and interned in the purchasing division of a local hospital. For part of the time that I shadowed her at the vocational education center, Ofelia was working on updating a portfolio that contained her resume, a cover letter, a list of references, a sample thank you letter, a letter requesting a recommendation, and a personal statement, among other items. Her portfolio also contained a copy of a completed application for a job at a nearby bakery, which she actually submitted, with guidance from her teacher who knew Ofelias dream of opening a bakery. While Ofelias status as a student in special education prevented her from enrolling in many of the optional programs and tracks within Bayside High, vocational education was a path that was open to her. She spoke positively of the program and the work experience she had gained. During the last week of school, Ofelia proudly showed off the Certificate of Advanced Mastery in Medical Careers she earned and explained her plan to get a part-time job in a hospital while she is in culinary school. I think they pay us double the price they pay fast-food, she added (6/14/2011).


In reflecting on Ofelias prolonged classification as an EL and her perhaps delayed classification as a student with a learning disability, we see the problems that arise when two distinct classification and labeling systems intersect. Initially, her label as an EL took precedence. Educators delayed assessing her for possible learning disabilities because of concerns that linguistic rather than cognitive issues might explain her difficulties in school. However, once Ofelia was assessed and classified as a student with a learning disability, this label seems to have taken precedence. She was placed in classes for students with special needs in high school, not classes targeted specifically for ELs. As numerous researchers have pointed out, schools are often ill-equipped to accurately assess and meaningfully instruct students with special needs who are also in the process of acquiring English (e.g., Artiles & Klingner, 2006), particularly at the secondary level, when compartmentalized schedules limit flexibility in instructional arrangements.

Analyzing the costs and benefits associated with the LTEL label is complicated in Ofelias case by the fact that her course placements and opportunity to learn in secondary school, especially her limited access to rigorous course content, were shaped primarily by her label as having a learning disability (LD). The LTEL label provided virtually no benefits for her since she received almost no specific services in high school focused specifically on her needs as a student not yet considered proficient in English. Similarly, the LTEL label produced few costs for Ofelia, since it was not the primary factor shaping her course placements and opportunity to learn. However, there is some evidence that Ofelia had internalized stigma associated with both the LTEL and LD labels. During our last interview, Ofelia was very proud to tell me about an award she had recently received from the EL department at Bayside High. But this award seems bittersweet. While Ofelia had accomplished a great deal, should she still have been considered an EL? Or had her learning disability simply prevented her from attaining the required scores on the CELDT and CSTin part because she received no accommodations on these assessments in the years before she qualified for special education? Had teachers expectations of her been inappropriately low because of her prolonged and perhaps inappropriate EL classification, limiting her opportunity to learn (Callahan, 2005; Oakes, 1985; Valdés, 2001)?


On our way to chemistry, Eliana tells me that is the class shes struggling in. Honestly, I dont think hes a very good teacher. He assigns us homework and then the next day the lecture is about what we had to do for homework. . . .The other thing about this class is that he doesnt really keep control. . . .

Students move to groups to do lab. Theres a lot of confusion. Students go to get goggles. I ask Eliana if she has regular lab partners. No, I work with different people because some dont do anything. . . . A student comes over.

Student: Eliana, whyd you leave us?

Eliana: Because you guys dont do any work.  Just kidding. Do you want to join us?  Were actually doing work. (Field note excerpt, 3/22/2011)


Eliana is rail-thin, somewhat hesitant, and speaks in a soft voice. My second interview with her took place immediately after she had participated in a group job interview for a position as a salesperson for knives. She described how difficult it was for her to speak up during the group interview, how she never talked during Socratic seminars in her classes, even though it sometimes meant losing points, but how she made herself talk during the interview. (She got the job.) Behind this quiet, unassuming exterior, though, Eliana is determined. She stayed after school four days a week for months to get the extra tutoring she needed to pass physics and precalculus. She applied to and was accepted at multiple four-year universities, and she is currently a junior at a large public university. Multiple times over the course of our interactions, she mentions that she will be the first person in her family to attend a four-year university, and she says that comments from her cousins doubting her ability to succeed only strengthen her resolve. Her mother describes her as very responsible, recounting how when she wanted to invite family members over for a barbecue, Eliana told her not to because she had a lot of studying to do. As in the field note excerpt above, Eliana is openly critical of teachers from whom she thinks she is not learning much, but she still does what is asked of her in their classes. She seems to have ownership over her education, figuring out what work she needs to do, and finding other people who are going to complete the tasks teachers ask them to complete, too.  

Eliana was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, the eldest of four children. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico as adults, and although they both speak some English now, Eliana says that when she was little, no one in her family spoke English to her, so she knew no English when she started kindergarten. Eliana fits the pattern of LTELs in the district-wide analysis who had met CELDT and CST-ELA reclassification criteria multiple times. Despite scoring at the Advanced level on the CELDT test as far back as fifth grade, Eliana was not reclassified until she was a ninth grader. As Table 4 shows, she met state minimum criteria for reclassification in sixth grade, scoring Early Advanced on the CELDT overall, scoring above Intermediate in each of the CELDT domains, and scoring 300 or above on the CST-ELA. However, Bayside also required that she score 300 or above on the Math portion of the CST (among other additional requirements). She scored 299 in Math, missing the cutoff by one point. In seventh grade, Eliana once again met all reclassification criteria for the CELDT and CST-ELA but scored 281 on the Math portion of the CST. Finally, in eighth grade, Elianas math CST score crept above 300 and the rest of her scores remained above the reclassification thresholds, and she was finally reclassified in ninth grade. In the approximately half of California districts in which math scores are not considered part of the reclassification criteria, Eliana would have been reclassified three years earlier (Hill et al., 2014). The particular reclassification criteria chosen by Bayside constructed the long-term English learner category in such a way that relatively high-achieving students such as Eliana could have the label applied to them.

Eliana describes multiple instances in which her English abilities affected her classroom experiences and her classroom placements. She arrived in Bayside as a first grader, having attended a bilingual kindergarten class in a nearby town. For her first several months in Bayside, Eliana was mistakenly placed in an English-only classroom where she remembers feeling like she did not know how to communicate with her teacher or peers. She was grateful when she was switched into a bilingual class. Although I did not prompt her to discuss her English Language Development (ELD) classes in elementary school, Eliana volunteered that these classes helped her become able to communicate with everyone else. I learned new words and a lot of things that I didnt know before (12/7/2010). She voices a bit of regret, noting that she had to leave her regular class to go to ELD in elementary school, so she spent less time in her regular class than students who were already proficient in English did. But, she adds, I still learned a lot in ELD [in elementary school].

During her first year of middle school, Eliana describes moving back and forth among various ability groups:

I remember in 6th grade, I switched around a lot. In 6th grade, they have three groups of classes called the Navigators, the X-Team, and the Sea Dragons. The X-Team was I think for the more, harder advanced students, I guess, then the Sea Dragons was for students that had ELD and easier stuff, then the Navigators were just normal. I started out in the X-Team, and then I remember starting out in an English class, I dont know, but that class seemed difficult for me. We started reading a book that I didnt understand what it was about, and they switched me out of that class and put me into the Sea Dragons, for students who dont know any English. Then they realized I really didnt belong there because I did know, so they put me in the Navigator team, so I switched my classes again. (12/7/2010)

Eliana observed that students were tracked into distinct levels of classes, and she had firm perceptions about the relative rigor of each track.

From examining Elianas transcripts and conferring with district administrators, it seems that the level she perceived as normal, where she spent the bulk of her time in sixth and seventh grades, was, like Ofelia, in classes that were labeled sheltered but were in fact multi-rostered classes that included both ELs and fluent English speakers. Eliana suggests that she experienced these classes as normal rather than as stigmatized, and she may not know that she was placed within the class as a part of a cluster of English learners. While Eliana may not have understood that some of her content-area classes in sixth and seventh grade were considered by school administrators to be sheltered, she did clearly understand that she was still considered an EL herself during these years and was placed into an English Language Development course each year. At one point in our discussion about her level of English proficiency over time, Eliana says, It was in seventh grade til I stopped being in ELD (12/7/2010).

Contrary to the image of LTELs as students without literacy skills in their primary language, Eliana considers herself a proficient reader and writer in Spanish. In addition to her classes in the bilingual program throughout elementary school, she took three years of Spanish in secondary school: two years of Spanish for Spanish speakers and then Advanced Placement Spanish. She received As in all six semesters of these classes. In addition, she received a 5 on the AP Spanish exam, the highest possible score.   

Eliana credits AVID, a college readiness program, for contributing greatly to her success in high school and helping her know what she needed to do to go to college. Being part of AVID also seems to have had powerful influences on her opportunities to learn, shaping her access to rigorous college-prep classes. AVID recruits students in the academic middle for participation in the program (AVID, n.d.): students with middle school GPAs between 2.0 and 3.5 who have strong attendance, have no major discipline issues, have earned decent but not stellar test scores, and would be the first in their families to attend college. Like all AVID students, Eliana took AVID as an elective course each year of high school and then took the academic courses necessary to fulfill college entrance requirements, typically at the Honors level or higher. She mentions several key components of the program:

I think it has just helped me become responsible. Im used to having 15 pages of notes, with summaries and highlighted and everything, and having an organized binder. What also helped me in AVID is that we have tutorials. Its twice a week and we have to come up with two questions in the class that we need help in, and then tutors come in and help us with the questions, and we talk about it. (12/7/2010).    

In Elianas high-track classes, students engaged with challenging content, teachers held high expectations for students, and Eliana was surrounded by peers focused on applying to college. While not every moment of her school days was spent engaged in high-level problem solving, the rigor of the tasks in which she was engaged was similar to that of the high-track classes described by Oakes (1985). For example, during my two days shadowing her, Eliana analyzed symbolism in an excerpt of The Stranger by Camus, wrote about pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act, and explored reasons for price fluctuations of three stocks she was responsible for tracking throughout the semester. Unlike the two other case study students, Eliana also had substantial amounts of homework.


Elianas discourse about her English acquisition trajectory and course placement highlights a key point from Goffmans (1963) discussion of how individuals manage stigma. As Goffman describes, stigmatized individuals are defined in contrast to normals. For Eliana, as a student in bilingual elementary school classroom comprised entirely of other native Spanish speakers at various phases of acquiring English, she was normal, and receiving special instruction to help with English acquisition was normal, too. However, when she entered middle school, with a mix of native and nonnative English speakers, receiving special instruction to help with English acquisition was no longer normal. It was stigmatized. In her description of switching tracks in sixth grade, she seems relieved to have been moved out of the track for ELD and easier stuff and into the track that was just normal.

Eliana illustrates how Link and Phelans (2001) four components of stigma can impact LTELs. First, school systems label students based on measures of their English proficiency. But then dominant cultural beliefs link labeled persons to undesirable characteristicsto negative stereotypes (p. 367). Students still enrolled in ELD in middle school, namely LTELs, are considered less intelligent and in need of easier schoolwork. Then, separation of us from them (Link & Phelan, 2001, p. 367) occurs, as higher tracks with fewer LTELs become regarded as normal, including by students like Eliana, to whom the LTEL applies. Finally, LTELs may experience status loss and discrimination that lead to unequal outcomes, (Link & Phelan, 2001, p. 367) particularly if the LTEL label prevents them from enrolling in rigorous courses that would provide them with access to a wide variety of postsecondary options.

However, Eliana seemed able to circumnavigate many of the costs that might have been associated with the LTEL label, including stigma. Although she was still technically considered an English learner until ninth grade, she was able, in Goffmans terms, to pass, to function in normal classrooms alongside fluent English speakers. Importantly, after middle school, Eliana was never enrolled in any classes designed just for ELs. Unlike the tight coupling of the EL label and course placement practices that is typically documented in the research literature, Bayside had a practice of placing students scoring Proficient on the CELDT in mainstream classes in high school even if the students were still technically considered ELs. Thus, the LTEL label provided few benefits to her because she received only limited targeted language support services, other than being taught by teachers with training in working with ELs and being placed in classes with a cluster of other ELs in middle school. But the LTEL label also produced only limited costs because it seems not to have constrained Elianas course placement or opportunities to learn, particularly in high school. She had full access to high-track classes at Bayside High, including four years of Honors English; Honors U.S. and World History; Honors Biology and Physics; Pre-Calculus; and AP Biology. In these courses, Eliana learned alongside fluent English-speaking peers, many of whom intended to enroll in college; was taught by teachers with high expectations for their students; and engaged in instructional activities that often required higher-level problem solving and abstract reasoning.

Why was Eliana not relegated to an ESL ghetto, in less-demanding courses separate from fluent English-speaking peers, as other researchers have found frequently happens to ELs in secondary school (Callahan, 2005; Dabach, 2014; Harklau, 1994; Kanno & Kangas, 2014; Valdés, 2001)? One possibility is that because Bayside had chosen quite stringent reclassification criteria, the district had created a situation in which very large numbers of students, including relatively high-achieving students such as Eliana, were considered LTELs. Therefore, it might have been impractical and/or seemed inadvisable to provide intensive language support services for all students falling into the LTEL category. It is important to note Bayside was not anomalous in its choice of reclassification criteria that were more stringent than the minimum suggested by the state. According to a recent survey of over 300 California districts, approximately half used CST math scores as reclassification criteria, as did Bayside; approximately 40% used higher CELDT criteria than Bayside did; and approximately 60%70% of districts used a higher CST-ELA cutpoint than used by Bayside for most of the years under study (Hill et al., 2014).


Luis: I don't know why, I'm just really quiet. I want to speak, I don't know, I want to express myself, but I just can't. I just imagine listening to everybody. Like I'm in a class, sociology, and everybody talks, we talk about life, we talk about how people fall in love, how people work in the world. I want to speak, but I just can't. I just listen to them, and I just speak in my head. I don't know why, that's weird.

Researcher: Do you think if the class were in Spanish it would be different?

Luis: I think it would. I think it would be, because in Spanish class, we used to talk about something, and I just rose my hand and spoke. Every time the teacher was like, Read this, I would read it fine. No problem, I'll read it. But like in English class, or another class, I read it in English, there's no problem, but I feel nervous. I don't know why, I feel like everybody is right there, just looking at me. (11/8/2010)


Luis is a quiet, unassuming, considerate young man with a seemingly serious demeanor that conceals a playful streak. He works hard lifting weights to bulk up his slender frame. When he runs the Big Kahuna in P.E. class, a roughly half-mile loop around the high school, he is the second student to finish, clocking in at about 3:50. A chivalrous ladies man who has had a steady stream of girlfriends since eighth grade, the only fault his teacher of three years finds with his work ethic is that for a time, he felt it necessary to walk his girlfriend to each of her classes, thus making himself tardy for his own classes. His parents express regret for the fact that, having only sixth grade educations themselves, they have felt unable to help Luis and his younger sister with their schoolwork in middle and high school.

Although he has lived in the United States all his life, both Luis and those around him have long expressed concern about his English abilities. Luis remembers that he was simply more interested in learning Spanish than English in elementary school, and that he never gave learning English his best shot in those years (11/8/2010). His third grade teacher wrote on his permanent record, Sweet boy, good friend, quiet. Reluctant to speak in class in English. Luiss mother remembers worrying that Luis still did not speak much English in fifth grade, so she went to his fifth grade teacher to voice her concern. Nonetheless, Luis met all reclassification criteria on the CELDT as early as fifth grade (see Table 4).

When Luis arrived in middle school, he apparently bounced around various courses, like Eliana. He remembers that he was initially placed in what he describes as regular English but was eventually switched to an English Language Development class just for ELs. However, like Eliana, during middle school he attended science, math, and other content area classes that were mixed with everyone, not just with other ELs. Looking back on this course placement, he says, It was not a good decision to go to ELD. I felt like, dumb, because all my friends were in high classes, and I was going from a top, regular class to the one that needs help, so I just wanted to challenge myself a little more (11/8/2010). Luis remembers the ELD class as really easy and said, I think I needed more than what they were learning. Luis explicitly describes a cost of his prolonged classification as an English learner: his placement in the stigmatized space of a middle school ELD class made him feel dumb, as Link and Phelan (2001) might predict.

Luis seems to have met all CELDT and CST criteria for reclassification in seventh grade, scoring just a few points over the CST cut scores of 300 with a score of 306 in English Language Arts and 302 in Math. His cumulative record shows that school administrators began filling out reclassification paperwork for him in eighth grade, based on these scores. However, the form includes a space for a teacher signature indicating the teacher recommends the student for reclassification. On this form, the space is highlighted but contains no signature, suggesting the teacher recommendation was never obtained. In ninth grade, Luis again met all CELDT and CST criteria for reclassification and was finally reclassified in tenth grade on the basis of his ninth grade scores. In keeping with Baysides practice at that time of placing students scoring Proficient on the CELDT in mainstream classes in high school, Luis was never enrolled in any separate courses just for ELs in high school, despite the fact that he was considered an English learner until he was in 10th grade.

By the end of high school, concerns about Luiss abilities in English continued, despite the fact that he had been reclassified. Nonetheless, he passed the high school exit exam and completed all of the credits necessary to graduate from high school. He chose to spend the last three years of high school in a small academy within Baysides large comprehensive high school, taking his core academic courses with the same set of teachers. One of his teachers within the academy reflected on Luiss language skills, expressing her confusion about whether the areas of weakness she noticed were because of gaps in English language proficiency, gaps in literacy knowledge, or simply a lack of effort:

I think that in terms of language skills and his writing skills, he definitely struggled. And his English language writing skill is probably not where you would want a student to be when they're graduating from high school. . . .The nicest, nicest kind of presence, always in attendance, always a smile on his face. Always willing to do the work to his best ability, and just never, never, never a behavioral issue in three years, in 180 days, five days a week. . . . He was a little bit of a late bloomer, potentially, academically. I think there was a lot more ability there than what effort I saw him put into the work. We did a case-study as a final examination, and he was able to read through a six-page business case-study, analyze all the information on that, and give the background. He did a marvelous job on it, and I was really impressed. I thought, Wow, you haven't been showing me, you've been hiding your candle under a bushel, buddy. (6/23/2011)

Luis talked openly about not always wanting to spend a lot of time on schoolwork. He explains that he dropped a poetry class because It was too much work. Its senior year, I want it to be refreshing (Field note, 4/4/2011). During my two days shadowing him, Luis was assigned no homework, and he explained that he had very little homework all year. In his English class, the teacher and students spent a total of approximately 50 minutes during the two days I observed reading Things Fall Apart aloud, rather than students completing the reading at home independently (as was required in Elianas English class). Luis said that all he ever did in his economics class was take notes, and that is what I observed him doing. He describes how he gradually realized that what mattered was not his letter grades but completing the credits he needed to graduate (in other words, getting anything above an F):

In 9th grade, I think I didn't really understand about credits, I wasn't sure about the 230 credits and everything. I just worried about the letter grades. Then in 10th grade, when I started doing poorly, I really looked at the grades, and I was like, If I'm getting the credits, I don't have to really worry about the letter grade. (5/3/2011).

Luis has relatives in Guadalajara who he visits frequently and who own a restaurant. His father has worked as a chef in the United States for periods of time, as well. Becoming a chef and opening his own restaurant became Luiss dream, as well, and like Ofelia, he enrolled in culinary school.


Revisiting Luiss reluctance to speak in class that I quoted earlier, Luis voices what Goffman (1963) describes as a central problem of a discreditable, stigmatized identity. Luis seems to fear that upon speaking, he will reveal himself as someone not completely fluent in English, even though, as he explains, he has no problem reading in English. This fear of being unmasked causes anxiety and impedes action, Goffman argues. Having explicitly linked placement in ELD with feeling dumb, Luis does not want to confirm, for himself or anyone else, that he is dumb or unable to function in English, so, to use his teachers phrase, he has been hiding [his] candle under a bushel. He focused on getting the credits he needed to graduate and move on to the next phase of his life.  

In analyzing the costs and benefits of the LTEL label for Luis, we again see that this label brought Luis very limited, if any, benefits but notable costs. While, like Eliana and Ofelia, he participated in English Language Development classes in middle school designed just for ELs, he experienced these classes as remedial, stigmatized spaces that made him feel dumb. In high school, his prolonged classification as an EL did not impact Luiss course placement. He was not shunted into an ESL ghetto and was not enrolled in any classes designed specifically for ELs. He could, theoretically, have enrolled in any track or program at Bayside and chose a business academy program for his final two years. While many factors, including counselor and teacher expectations, parent expectations, and the aspirations and motivation of students and their peers, impact track placement, we should not discount the possibility that the stigma Luis experienced as a result of his prolonged classification as an English learner might have affected his self-concept, his aspirations, and the rigor of the courses in which he enrolled during high school.

Cross-Case Analysis

Heterogeneity among students to whom the LTEL label is applied. Ofelia, Eliana, and Luis were all considered LTELs for at least some portion of their time in high school. Yet there are dramatic differences in their academic achievement, the rigor of the courses in which they were enrolled, and the postsecondary options open to them. As Link and Phelan (2001) remind us, Substantial oversimplication is required to create groups (p. 368).

Ofelia is one of the 35% of LTELs in Bayside that also qualify for special education services. Once the Special Education label was applied, it was this labelnot the LTEL labelthat shaped Ofelias course placements and opportunity to learn. It seems possible that cognitive processing issues unrelated to language proficiency may have affected Ofelias performance on English proficiency assessments and content-area assessments in the years before she qualified for special education services. If she had been given accommodations on these assessments during elementary and middle school, might she have met reclassification criteria? Ofelia reminds us that a substantial portion of the students labeled LTELs may be students who had undiagnosed learning disabilities for many years.

Meanwhile, both Eliana and Luis are among the half of LTELs in Bayside who attained individual reclassification criteria multiple times but remained ELs for many years. Recall that in fifth grade, Eliana appeared to have met all other reclassification criteria but scored 299 on the states math content assessment, one point below the cut score of 300. She was not reclassified for four more years. If students, such as Eliana, remain LTELs because they fail to meet math criteria, it is not accurate to characterize all LTELs as possessing low levels of academic literacy (Menken et al., 2012, p. 123) since it is not necessarily literacy skills that prevent students such as Eliana from reclassifying.

According to his own reports and those of this teacher, Luis continued to struggle with language and literacy in high school. But Eliana thrived. Unlike the typical portrayal of LTELs in the research literature, Eliana maintained a 3.4 GPA, successfully completed a rigorous load of Honors and AP courses, and matriculated to a four-year university. When districts employ multiple stringent reclassification criteria, it becomes more likely that high-achieving students like Eliana will fall into the LTEL category.

Loose coupling between the LTEL label and specific services for students. Researchers have typically found that ELs in secondary school experience constrained course placements, with limited access to rigorous academic courses (e.g., Callahan, 2005; Harklau, 1994; Kanno & Kangas, 2014; Valdés, 2001). Ofelia, Eliana, and Luis were enrolled in ELD courses specifically for ELs during one period each day during most of middle school. However, their status as LTELs did not determine their course placements in high school. As noted above, Bayside exempted ELs who had scored Proficient on the CELDT from EL-only high school courses. The fact that students course placement was not determined by their EL status means that a mechanism by which the LTEL label might be expected to confer benefitssuch as access to specialized servicesand costssuch as limited access to mainstream courseswas not operative for Ofelia, Eliana, and Luis at the high school level. As demonstrated above, there were vast differences in the rigor of the courses in which Ofelia, Eliana, and Luis were enrolled. But these differences in opportunity to learn were track-related differences. In Bayside, students access to these different tracks was not constrained by their LTEL status. More research is needed to explore the extent to which the LTEL label constrains course placement across a wider variety of schools, districts, and states.

Secondary EL-only spaces experienced as stigmatizing. Both Eliana and Luis seem to have experienced their English Language Development classes at the middle school level as stigmatizing but not their ELD classes in elementary school or their sheltered classes in middle school (in which they were placed in mainstream courses with a cluster of other ELs). Other students shared this perception. A district administrator recalled a time when she asked students in a middle school ELD class why they were in the class. Because were dumb, one student replied (Field note, 3/27/2011). As Goffman (1963) suggests, we impute additional imperfections on the basis of the original one (p. 5); in this case, students themselves impute that they are dumb on the basis of the fact that they are not considered proficient in English.

Luis, as noted earlier, describes his middle school ELD classes as really easy and explains that he felt like, dumb, because all my friends were in high classes, and I was going from a top, regular class to the one that needs help (11/8/2010). In contrast, no students mention feeling dumb for being in ELD classes in elementary school. A variety of different factors may contribute to this. First, since students tend to describe themselves as beginning English speakers at the start of elementary school, what they were learning in ELD likely seemed of obvious relevance. Second, because all students in my sample were in bilingual classes in elementary school comprised entirely of other native Spanish speakers, almost all students in their classes participated in ELD classes. Thus, students saw that almost everyone, regardless of intelligence or status in other areas, went to ELD. This changed when students entered middle school. ELD became stigmatized, in contrast to normal classes that did not focus specifically on acquiring English.

The districts practice of placing clusters of English learners in mainstream courses at the middle school level rather than tracking students into completely separate classes seems to have had important consequences for students perceptions of their content-area courses in middle school, as well. Students described these classes as normal or mixed with everyone. Given this practice, students prolonged classification as English learners seems likely to have affected their course placements and access to native English speakers less than it might have in districts with other course placement practices (Estrada, 2014). However, further research is needed about curriculum and instruction within content-area classes with clusters of ELs.


Though the LTEL label was coined to improve the educational experiences for students, I argue that this label, as it is sometimes used, blinds us to the heterogeneity of students to whom the label is applied, to the particular experiences, abilities, and successes of students such as Ofelia, Eliana, and Luis. Contrary to depictions of LTELs as doomed to educational failure, Ofelia, Eliana, and Luis are all proud high school graduates, using English to successfully navigate a wide variety of contexts in their daily lives, including academic tasks.

I do not want to ignore the potentially positive impact that discussions about students who fit the long-term English learner criteria may have had in particular contexts. In Bayside itself, administrators and secondary teachers recently completed an extensive overhaul of the districts course placement policies for ELs. These revised placement policies explicitly take the time that students have spent in U.S. schools into account, exempting all students who have been enrolled in U.S. schools for six years or more from enrollment in separate English Language Development courses. If they were attending Bayside middle schools today, Ofelia, Eliana, and Luis would not be placed in ELD classes. Students in Bayside still classified as English learners in secondary school might be placed in intervention courses in addition to their mainstream English and math courses, depending on their content-area standardized test scores, but non-ELs are also enrolled in these intervention courses. While the effect of this revised placement policy on student outcomes is currently unknown, it does mean that students labeled LTELs would no longer be placed in the ELD classes that they seemed to find stigmatizing. Whether the stigma simply shifts to the intervention courses is unknown and will depend on multiple factors.

In their essay Culture as Disability McDermott and Varenne (1995) write:

By the dictates of the culture, in American education, everyone must do better than everyone else. Of course, this is both logically and social structurally impossible. Failure is a constant possibility in American schools, and, by the dictates of the normal curve, it absorbs about half the students along the way. Failure is always ready to acquire someone. . . . If social structuring processes in America must be fed by repeated identifications of failure in school and school-like institutions, then American education will continue acquiring people for its positions of failure. (p. 44)

Currently, failure is acquiring long-term English learners. Students are labeled as failures for not meeting reclassification criteria within specific timeframes. I argue that despite the long-standing pattern that McDermott and Varenne (1995) identify, we should resist impulses to describe groups of students as lacking literacy skills in any language or as passive, disengaged learners. As we have seen, substantial proportions of Bayside students to whom the LTEL label could be applied had met individual reclassification criteria, sometimes in multiple years.

While I argue that our current system of classifying English learners has fundamental flaws and that the LTEL label can blind us to students abilities, I nonetheless acknowledge that there are individual students who in fact do struggle with language and literacy in secondary school, as perhaps Ofelia and Luis did. Most curricula for so-called intervention classes consist of larger doses of what students have already experiencedmore reading strategy instruction, more grammar and punctuation worksheets, more vocabulary practice. For these students, there is an urgent need for true innovation in curriculum and instruction.



In September 2012, California established the first definition of long-term English learners written into law. Unlike the definition of LTELs in widespread use by practitioners and employed in this study, the new law does not simply use the number of years ELs have been enrolled in U.S. schools to determine whether a student is considered an LTEL. The law also incorporates academic failure criteria, as urged by Olsen (2010). Specifically, to be considered a LTEL, a student must: (1) be in grades 612; (2) have been enrolled in the United States for more than six years; (3) have remained at the same level on the state English Language Proficiency test for two or more consecutive years; and (4) have scored Below Basic or Far Below Basic on the state content assessment in English Language Arts (Cal. Ed. Code " 313.1, 2012).

At first glance, this new law might seem to address issues raised by the research presented here. Rather than assuming that all students who have been classified as ELs for more than six years have low literacy skills in both languages, the law stipulates that students must show evidence of struggling with literacy. If this law had been effect when students in my sample were in high school, Eliana would never have been considered an LTEL. This seems fitting since she showed little to no evidence of protracted literacy and language learning issues.

Ofelia, on the other hand, who showed the most evidence of protracted literacy and language learning issues, would have been considered an LTEL under the new law in most years of middle and high school. However, if interpreted strictly as written, a student is only considered an LTEL if her English proficiency level remains the same for two or more consecutive years (Cal. Ed. Code " 313.1, 2012). Under this interpretation, Ofelia would have moved in and out of the LTEL category because her English proficiency level, as measured by her overall CELDT scores sometimes dropped (see Table 4). What useful information do districts receive from having students like Ofelia, with ongoing language and literacy issues, counted and then not counted as LTELs?

It is important to remember that the new California law simply provides a count to districts of the number of students who meet the LTEL criteria. How districts will use the information about their number of LTELs is unknown. Olsen (2012) has compiled a document spotlighting strategies districts have used to develop targeted courses for LTELs. The intent of these courses is to provide students with the tools necessary to successfully engage with rigorous academic content. However, as the report acknowledges, students may be resistant to being in the class (p. 12). Under what conditions such courses can function as empowering rather than stigmatizing spaces represents an important area for future research.

Ultimately, the issues raised by this law and the challenges of developing courses to meet the needs of LTELs demonstrate the problems with classifying students into rigid categories. This is not to say that the LTEL label should necessarily be abandoned entirely. As states and districts implement next-generation assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards, questions about appropriate reclassification criteria under these new assessments, as well as questions about appropriate supports for students in the process of acquiring English, will undoubtedly arise. As educators move forward in attempting to reform systems and structures to better meet students needs, it is important to remember how the categories we construct can blind us to students abilities.


This research was made possible by a Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship and by a Stanford Graduate School of Education Dissertation Support Grant. I thank the students, parents, and teachers who so generously shared their time, as well as administrators who provided me with access to district data, as well as valuable feedback on analyses. In addition, I thank Kenji Hakuta, Sean Reardon, Guadalupe Valdés, Ed Haertel, John Rickford, Ilana Umansky, Sara Rutherford-Quach, Michelle Brown, Michele Friedner, Dafney Dabach, Linda Harklau, Maneka Brooks, and Amanda Kibler for useful feedback on earlier drafts of the manuscript.

1. As with most datasets, information for some variables is missing. Approximately 6% of students in the dataset do not have information for any demographic variables and are excluded from analysis of involving these variables. Among students with information for demographic variables, over 99% have complete information for gender, home language, and special education participation. The demographic variables most likely to be missing are free lunch participation and parent education. In 20102011, the year for which data is displayed in Table 2, 17% of students are missing information on free lunch participation and 10% are missing information on parent education level. LTELs are slightly less likely than other students to be missing information on free lunch participation and slightly more likely to be missing information on parent education. However, the differences in demographic characteristics between LTELs and other students are so dramatic that differences in missing data among the groups play a negligible role.  For test score variables, information is missing in approximately 7% of cases. Students with missing test score information are excluded from the analysis in Table 3.

2. Details about the town and school district have been altered slightly to protect students anonymity.

3. The dataset available for analysis did not contain separate scores for each CELDT domain (Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing). While it would have been preferable to examine percentages of LTELs meeting reclassification criteria on the CELDT as a whole and within each CELDT domain, this was not possible.

4. I have carried out district-wide analysis equivalent to that discussed here for seven other districts in California. Results for these districts are similar to results for Bayside. In these seven districts, approximately one-fourth to one-third of LTELs qualify for special education services, and approximately one-half of LTELs have scored Proficient on the CELDT and/or Basic on the CST-ELA in at least one year.


Abedi, J. (2008). Classification system for English language learners: Issues and recommendations.

Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 27(3), 1731.

Artiles, A., & Klingner, J. (2006). Forging a knowledge base on English language learners with special

needs: Theoretical, population, and technical issues. Teachers College Record, 108, 21872194.

AVID. (n.d.) What is AVID? Retrieved from http://www.avid.org/what-is-avid.ashx

California Department of Education. (2003). Decision guide: Reclassifying a student from EL to FEP.

Retrieved from http://celdt.cde.ca.gov/CELDT2003/Celdt/reclass_EL_03.pdf

Callahan, R., Wilkinson, L., & Muller, C. (2010). Academic achievement and course taking among

language minority youth in US schools: Effects of ESL placement. Educational Evaluation and Policy

Analysis, 32(1), 84117.

Callahan, R. M. (2005). Tracking and high school English learners: Limiting opportunity to learn.

American Educational Research Journal, 42(2), 305328

Crivello, G., Camfield, L., & Woodhead, M. (2008). How can children tell us about their wellbeing?

Exploring the potential of participatory research approaches within young lives. Social Indicators

Research, 90(1), 5172.

Dabach, D. B. (2014). I am not a shelter!: Stigma and social boundaries in teachers accounts of

students experience in separate sheltered English learner classrooms. Journal of Education for

Students Placed At Risk, 19(2), 98124.

Dabach, D. B., & Callahan, R. M. (2011, October 7). Rights versus reality: The gap between civil rights

and English learners high school educational opportunities. Teachers College Record. ID Number:


Estrada, P. (2014). English learner curricular streams in four middle schools: Triage in the trenches. The

Urban Review, 46(5), 535573.

Emerson, R. M., Fretz, R. I., & Shaw, L. L. (1995). Writing ethnographic fieldnotes (1st ed.). Chicago, IL:

University of Chicago Press.

Freeman, Y. S., Freeman, D. E., & Mercuri, S. (2002). Closing the achievement gap: How to reach

limited-formal-schooling and long-term English learners. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Gándara, P., Moran, R., & Garcia, E. (2004). Legacy of Brown: Lau and language policy in the

United States. Review of Research in Education, 28(1), 2746.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of a spoiled identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:


Goldenberg, C., & Rutherford-Quach, S. (2012). The Arizona home language survey: The under-

identification of students for English language services. Language Policy11(1), 2130.

Haney-López, I. F. (1994). Social construction of race: Some observations on illusion, fabrication, and

choice. Harvard CR-CL Law Review. Retrieved from http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/facpubs/1815

Harklau, L. (1994). Jumping tracks: How language-minority students negotiate evaluations of ability.

Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 25(3), 347363.

Hill, L. E., Weston, M., & Hayes, J. (2014). Reclassification of English learner students in California. San

Francisco, CA: Public Policy Institute of California. Retrieved from


Kanno, Y., & Kangas, S. E. N. (2014). Im not going to be, like, for the AP: English language learners

limited access to advanced college-preparatory courses in high school. American Educational Research

Journal, 51(5), 848-878. doi:10.3102/0002831214544716

Kinsella, K. (n.d.) Dr. Kate Kinsella on long-term English learners. Retrieved from


Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974).

Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2001). Conceptualizing stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27(1), 363385.

Link, B. G., & Phelan, J. C. (2013). Labeling and stigma. In C. S. Aneshensel, J. C. Phelan, & A. Bierman

(Eds.), Handbook of the sociology of mental health (pp. 525541). Dordrecht, NL: Springer Netherlands.

Linquanti, R. (2001). The redesignation dilemma: Challenges and choices in fostering meaningful

accountability for English learners. Davis, CA: University of California Language Minority Research


McDermott, R., & Varenne, H. (1995). Culture as disability. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 26(3),


Menken, K. (2013). Emergent bilingual students in secondary school: Along the academic language and

literacy continuum. Language Teaching, 46(4), 438476.

Menken, K., & Kleyn, T. (2010). The long-term impact of subtractive schooling in the educational

experiences of secondary English language learners. International Journal of Bilingual Education and

Bilingualism, 13(4), 399-417.

Menken, K., Kleyn, T. & Chae, N. (2012, August). Spotlight on long-term English language learners:

Characteristics and prior schooling experiences of an invisible population. International Multilingual

Research Journal, 6(2), 121142.

Nelson, I. A. (2010). From quantitative to qualitative: Adapting the life history calendar method. Field

Methods, 22(4), 413428.

Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Haven, CT: Yale University


Olsen, L. (2010). Reparable harm: Fulfilling the unkept promise of educational opportunity for Californias

long term English learners. Long Beach, CA: Californians Together.

Olsen, L. (2012). Secondary courses to address the language needs and academic gaps of long-term

English learners. Long Beach, CA: Californians Together.

Ragan, A., & Lesaux, N. (2006). Federal, state, and district level English language learner program entry

and exit requirements: Effects on the education of language minority learners. Education Policy Analysis

Archives14(20), 132.

Rivera-Mills, S. V. (2000). New perspectives on current sociolinguistic knowledge with regard to language use, proficiency, and attitudes among Hispanics in the U.S.: The case of a rural Northern California community. Lewiston, NY: Mellen Press.

Smedley, A., & Smedley, B. D. (2005). Race as biology is fiction, racism as a social problem is real:

Anthropological and historical perspectives on the social construction of race. American

Psychologist60(1), 1626.

Solórzano, R. (2008). High stakes testing: Issues, implications, and remedies for English language

learners. Review of Educational Research, 78(2), 260329.  

Tanenbaum, C., Boyle, A., Soga, K., Le Floch, K. C., Golden, L., Petroccia, M., . . .  ODay, J. (2012).

National evaluation of Title III implementation Report on state and local implementation. Washington,

DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/title-iii/state-local-


Thompson, K. D. (2013). Is separate always unequal? A philosophical examination of ideas of equality in key cases regarding racial and linguistic minorities in education. American Educational Research Journal, 50(6), 12491278.

Valdés, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York,

NY: Teachers College Press.

West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). Doing gender. Gender & Society1(2), 125151.

Yin, R. (2009). Case study research: Design and methods (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Interview Protocol for Students

Interview 1

Timeline creation. Before each interview, I prepared a timeline template for students to use.  The template consisted of a long sheet of paper divided into five sections: Before School, Elementary School, Middle School, High School, After High School. The first half of the interview revolved around students completing this timeline. In some cases, students completed the timeline themselves, while in other cases, I wrote notes on the timeline as students talked.

I introduced the timeline activity as follows: Now that youre entering your final year of high school, Im interested to know how you became the person you are now. On this piece of paper, Id like you to create a timeline showing things you remember from different periods of life, especially things that you think helped make you the person you are today.

During the timeline activity I prompted students to expand on their answers (i.e., Tell me more about . . . ; Why did . . .  happen?). In addition, I specifically prompted students to explain and reflect on their course placement (i.e., Why did you take . . . classes?; How did you start participating in . . . ?). I also prompted students to think about experiences both in and out of school.

To better understand how students conceptualized their own language development and language proficiency, I also asked students to rate their proficiency in both English and Spanish at various points in time, using methodology developed by Rivera-Mills (2000). This series of questions typically proceeded as follows:


Think of someone who learned English as a second language and who you consider very skilled in English. Tell me about this person. What can s/he do with English?


Imagine a scale from one to ten. Someone who knows no English represents a one, and the person you just described represents a ten. Where would you put yourself on this scale? Why?

I then repeated the same series of questions for Spanish. Finally, I had students return to their timelines and rate their English and Spanish proficiency during each time period according to the scales they constructed.

Interview 2

Revisiting Timeline, Reviewing Transcripts

During the second interview, I asked students to revisit the After High School section

of their timelines, probing with questions such as:


Looking at the timeline you created earlier this year, what ideas do you have now about what you might be doing at this time next year?  [If students answers changed: What do you think made you change your mind about what you might be doing?]

In addition, having examined students school records and shadowed students, I asked students for more details about information I obtained from their records and from shadowing. In particular, I showed students their transcripts and asked them to tell me what they noticed about it. In particular, I probed students to explain shifts in grades and types of classes (i.e., Tell me why you started . . .; I see that . . .  Can you tell me about that?).

Note: As part of my larger project to understand students language development more broadly, I also collected written language samples from students by having them complete a narrative writing task during this interview. Because I do not use the data from these language samples here, I do not detail the task here.


Interview Protocol for Parents

As a way of triangulating my data, I asked parents to add to the timeline their children created, documenting experiences that shaped their child into the person s/he is today. In addition to the timeline creation, I asked parents a variety of questions, such as:


Tell me a little bit about what your son/daughter is like at home now.


Tell me a little bit about what your son/daughter was like at home when s/he was younger.


Tell me about your son/daughters experiences in Bayside schools.


What are your hopes for your son/daughters future?

To get additional information about the language environment in students homes beyond that provided by school records and shadowing, I also asked parents questions such as:


What language do you usually speak to [focal student]? What language does [focal student] usually speak to you?


Interview Protocol for School Staff

Teaching background:


How long have you been teaching?  How long have you been at [name of school]?


What classes are you teaching this year?

Class objectives and goals:


Tell me a little bit about your [name of class in which focal student is enrolled] class. [Probe for goals, objectives, vision for what is trying to accomplish.]

Assessment of focal student:


How long have you known [focal student]? Tell me about your relationship with him/her.


How would you describe [focal student]?  In what areas is s/he strongest?  In what areas does s/he struggle?


How is [focal student] doing in your class?  How is s/he doing in school generally?


How well do you think [focal student] speaks/understands/reads/writes English? [Ask as separate questions.]


What language do you usually hear [focal student] speak?  Which language do you think [focal student] is strongest in?


What insight do you have into [focal students] peer world? Who does s/he hang out with? What language does s/he use when interacting with peers?


What concerns about [focal student] do you have, if any?

Future Plans:


What do you imagine [focal students] life will be like next year?  In 10 years?


Coding Procedures

Because data was collected as part of a larger project examining long-term outcomes for 15 students, interviews covered wide-ranging topics. During initial open coding, I created 465 codes, which I then grouped into 10 broad themes: language acquisition, course placement/tracks, family, peers, teachers, grades, problem behaviors, school-based extracurricular activities, jobs, and regret. I then further organized codes into hierarchies within each of these themes.

As course placement emerged as the focus on my analysis, I pursued focused coding around this theme. Below I provide details of my coding scheme for this theme. (I also engaged in focused coding around the theme of language acquisition. Detailed examples of this coding scheme is available by request.) I list the codes related to course placement/tracks, and for each code (other than for those simply indicating the type of tracks/courses students were describing), I provide an example of data to which the code was applied. In many cases, multiple codes were applied to an interview or field note segment. For example, the code for the type of track/course would be applied throughout a segment, while a code specifying reasons for being in the track/course would be applied to a smaller segment. Some codes, such as reasons for being in a track/course (TrR), emerged from and were more frequently applied to interview transcripts, while other codes, such as a flag for the cognitive complexity of tasks in which students were asked to engage (TrCC), emerged from and were more frequently applied to field notes.  

Code hierarchy for the theme of course placement/tracks

Each interview transcript was coded to indicate the types of tracks/courses that students were describing in particular sections of the transcript. Field notes from shadowing students were also coded to indicate the types of tracks/courses I observed.


In addition, interview transcripts and field notes were coded to indicate additional themes related to the tracks/courses.


Note: Higher-level codes are italicized. Subcodes appear in indented rows below higher-level codes. The codes for the types of tracks/courses being discussed in the excerpts are indicated in parentheses below each data excerpt.

To create synthesized write-ups in the manuscript, I integrated multiple sources of evidence, including student interview transcripts, parent interview transcripts, teacher interview transcripts, photos and field notes from reviewing students cumulative folders, copies of students school transcripts and assessment scores, and field notes from shadowing students for two days each. I triangulated across these multiples sources, searching for confirming and disconfirming evidence. I provide an example of how I integrated these sources of evidence to describe opportunities to learn in Luiss College Prep and Business Academy classes in one portion of the manuscript.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 12, 2015, p. 1-50
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18152, Date Accessed: 1/29/2022 12:05:00 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Karen Thompson
    Oregon State University
    E-mail Author
    KAREN D. THOMPSON is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Oregon State University. Her research focuses on how policy, curriculum, and instruction interact to shape the experiences of linguistically diverse students in U.S. schools. She has a particular focus on conducting research in partnership with districts and states to analyze longitudinal data about linguistically diverse students in ways that inform policy and practice. Prior to entering academia, Dr. Thompson spent more than a decade working with linguistically diverse students in California public schools as a bilingual teacher, after-school program coordinator, and school reform consultant. Her recent work has appeared in Educational Researcher and the American Educational Research Journal, among other venues.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue