English-Language Learners

U.S. English Learners’ Language-Proficiency Scores Still Below Pre-Pandemic Years

By Ileana Najarro — April 18, 2023 4 min read
A young, culturally diverse elementary student is typing on a laptop as she sits at her desk. There are diverse kids blurred on either side of her working on laptops.
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Virtual learning, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, continued to impact English learners’ English-language development in the 2021-22 school year, according to new national assessment data.

Overall, average composite English-language-proficiency scores trended lower in the 2021-22 school year than pre-pandemic 2018-19 and 2019-20 years, with particular declines in the younger elementary grades. That’s according to results from 35 states that administer a language-proficiency test from WIDA, an organization that provides multilingual learner services, including assessments. (Other states, including California and Texas, use different assessments.)

The 2020-21 composite scores were also lower, but, about 30 percent fewer students took the test that year, which may have affected the resulting scores. The lower participation rate was in part due to concerns about taking an in-person assessment at the height of the pandemic, leaving that year’s data difficult to assess in comparison.

Schools closed around March 2020 nationwide through the end of the school year, with most states returning to in-person learning until the 2021-22 school year.

The missing 2021 data also makes it difficult to assess English learners’ growth in proficiency, said Narek Sahakyan, a researcher at WIDA and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, housed at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Evaluation of growth requires two adjacent data points across time, and the 2021 data are incomplete.

But with a more complete number of students taking the WIDA assessment in 2022, after most states returned to in-person instruction that school year, a clearer picture has emerged, showing that English-language-acquisition progress didn’t immediately bounce back or surpass that seen prior to the pandemic’s start.

“Some people may think that the pandemic is done,” Sahakyan said. “[But] the impact that it has had nationally on the educational system, and specifically on the most vulnerable groups and how they are serviced, funded, and resourced—that is definitely still reverberating throughout the educational system.”

New data offers clearer national picture

The new analysis co-authored by Sahakyan and Glenn Poole, a graduate student in the educational leadership policy analysis department, at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, broke down average composite scores by the individual language domains WIDA tests for reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

In these breakdowns, the researchers found a big dip in writing and speaking proficiency scores in 2022 compared to pre-pandemic years, especially in younger grades. The resulting dips in the other two domains were not as big.

Sahakyan suggests that writing and speaking scores may have seen such fluctuations because they are harder to teach and practice in a remote setting.

While overall average composite scores from 2022 offer a clearer comparison point, the lack of growth data is a problem.

Growth year-to-year is a key measure for English learners’ overall trajectory from identification to reclassification out of EL programs, said Leslie Villegas, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning think tank New America that researches English learner policies.

Sahakyan said that growth in the 2022 year would have had to exceed pre-pandemic levels to an amount equivalent to the dip for these students to catch up to where they likely would have been without the pandemic.

Next steps for educators, researchers

While the new analysis offers a snapshot of the national landscape for English learners, both Sahakyan and Villegas said it’s crucial for states, school districts, and schools to dig into their local data for nuances national results may not highlight.

“Doing similar analyses, and then comparing to the national trends, in my opinion, is going to be very informative, both at the state and the district level for policymakers, for administrators to understand where they stand,” Sahakyan said, “both looking at their own longitudinal trends, and also comparing those trends to national trends to both within grades for different grades, and then for different domains.”

Local analyses could also better identify if there are differences in the proficiency of EL subgroups, including breaking down data by race and ethnicity and whether students qualify for free and reduced lunch, he added.

The WIDA national results can offer a snapshot of trends for schools and districts to know what key grades and language domains to pay attention to when they are evaluating how to serve students at the local level, Villegas said.

She added that schools and districts have an advantage in knowing more details about their students, including how the pandemic might have impacted their trajectory to be classified as fluent in English. (The process from identification to reclassification can take anywhere from five to seven years.)

“I would probably look at delays or changes in the amount of time that the kids are expected to reclassify,” Villegas said. “That kind of student-specific data is what makes a really big difference here.”

In terms of future research, there needs to be more unpacking of the disparities that existed prior to the pandemic in the educational outcomes of English learner subgroups—such as the impact of specialized teacher shortages—and how the pandemic impacted those disparities, Sahakyan said.

“There’s still so much to be learned and to be unpacked,” he said. “I’m hoping that this is going to serve as a springboard for future research.”

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