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Spotlight on Limited English Proficient Students in the United States

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Spotlight on Limited English Proficient Students in the United States

Source Spotlights are often updated as new data become available. Please click here to find the most recent version of this Spotlight, which has an expanded focus on all limited English proficient individuals in the United States.

In 2002, passage of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) marked a turn in the nation's approach to educating children who do not speak English well, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants.

This month's Spotlight examines characteristics of students that NCLB identifies as limited English proficient (LEP). Although local and state education agencies may use different definitions, NCLB legislation defines limited English proficient students as:

"...ages 3 to 21, enrolled in elementary or secondary education, often born outside the United States or speaking a language other than English in their homes, and not having sufficient mastery of English to meet state standards and excel in an English-language classroom."

The enrollment data used in this Spotlight come from the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition & Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA), while demographic and social data are from the Census 2000 5 percent Public-Use Microdata Sample (PUMS).

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

LEP Student Data from NCELA

Demographic and Social Characteristics of LEP Children (Ages 5 to 18) According to Census 2000 Data

LEP Student Data from NCELA

About five million LEP students were enrolled in public schools in the 2003-2004 school year.
NCELA estimates that 5,013,539 LEP students were enrolled in public schools (kindergarten through grade 12) in the 2003-2004 school year. This number represents about 10.1 percent of total public-school student enrollment in the United States.

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The number of LEP students enrolled in American public schools increased by 65 percent between 1994 and 2004.
The total kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) enrollment in the United States grew 12 percent from 45,443,389 in 1993-1994 to 49,619,090 in 2003-2004 (see Figure 1). In contrast, LEP enrollment increased by 65 percent from 3,037,922 students to 5,013,539 during the same time period.


Figure 1. Rate of total K-12 and LEP enrollment growth, 1993-1994 to 2003-2004

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With nearly 1.6 million LEP students in 2003-2004, California had the largest number in the country.
California had 1,598,535 LEP students in 2003-2004, 32 percent of the nation's total. The states with the next-largest LEP-student populations were Texas (660,707), Florida (282,066), New York (191,992), and Illinois (161,700). See Table 1 for more state information.

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The LEP-student population grew 522 percent in South Carolina between 1993-1994 and 2003-2004.
Between 1993-1994 and 2003-2004, LEP enrollment grew 522 percent in South Carolina, which only recently experienced an increase in its immigrant population. The size of the LEP-student populations declined 11 percent in New York, a state with a long history of receiving immigrants (see Table 1).

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During 2003-2004, 29 school districts accounted for a quarter of all LEP students.
In the 2003-2004 school year, 29 school districts, each with at least 10,000 LEP students, accounted for 25 percent of the total LEP population. Thirteen of these districts were in California (see Table 2). The top three school districts were Los Angeles (321,149 LEP students), New York City (129,286), and Chicago (82,849).

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About 80 percent of all LEP students reported Spanish as their native language.
Although NCELA reports that LEP students spoke over 400 native languages (2000-2001 data), 79 percent identified Spanish as their native language. The next most commonly reported native languages were Vietnamese (two percent) and Hmong (1.6 percent).

Demographic and Social Characteristics of LEP Children (Ages 5 to 18) According to Census 2000 Data

Sixty-four percent of all LEP children were born in the United States.
According to the 2000 census, there were 3,786,841 LEP children ages 5 to 18. Of those, 64 percent (2,425,885) were born in the United States (see Figure 2).


Figure 2. LEP Children Ages 5 to 18 by Generation

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About 40 percent of foreign-born children were LEP.
According to the 2000 census, 42.3 percent (1,361,956) of foreign-born children were limited English proficient. Only 4.5 percent (2,424,885) of U.S.-born children were LEP.

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Latino children made up 66 percent of all LEP children.
In 2000, Latinos constituted the majority of LEP children in the nation (65.6 percent or 2,486,708). Note: the Census defines Latinos as those who identify their origins as Mexican, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Cuban, Central or South American, or who identify themselves as "other Spanish/Hispanic/Latino" regardless of race.

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LEP children are twice as likely to live in poor families compared to children who speak only English or English very well.
LEP students are more likely than either bilingual or English monolingual children to live in families whose income is below 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold. In 2000, 65 percent of LEP children lived in poor families compared to 51 percent of bilingual children and 32 percent of English monolingual children (see Figure 3).


Figure 3. Percent Children with Family Income Below 185 Percent of the Federal Poverty Threshold by Language Proficiency

Note: The Census Bureau uses a set of pretax money-income thresholds, which vary by family size and composition, to determine who lives in poverty. The poverty threshold for a family of four in 1999 was set at $17,029. To be below 185 percent of poverty threshold, the four-person family, on average, had to have an income of $31,504 or lower in 1999.

Potentially bilingual children are defined here as children who lived in households where a language other than English was spoken but who themselves spoke English "very well."

Additional Resources:

National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition & Language Instruction Educational Programs (NCELA)

The U.S. Bureau of the Census

Report from the Urban Institute and MPI: The New Demography of America's Schools: Immigration and the No Child Left Behind Act