The complicated picture of the progress of English language learners during the pandemic

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The latest data on how English learners across the country successfully developed their language during the pandemic is available. But there is a major problem: around 30% fewer students took a widely used standardized assessment in 2021 compared to two years earlier, making the data difficult to analyze over time.

Students also took the test at different times throughout the school year, with some taking it up to 15 months later than their peers elsewhere, according to a new report. of the WIDA consortium which offers the online assessment. Thirty-six states, several territories in the United States, and agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Education use WIDA assessments, with nearly half of all English learners taking these tests nationwide.

While it’s tempting to look at the aggregate results, which show an overall decline, especially in speaking skills, and indicate English learners are worse off than before the pandemic, experts warn that the results of the tests are flawed and have limited uses. WIDA data issues are indicative of a pervasive challenge that educators and researchers are currently facing in trying to pin down student achievement in all subjects: The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted assessments, leaving major asterisks on most data collection.

English proficiency tests, offered by WIDA and others, are required by state and federal law for ELL students in Kindergarten to Grade 12. They measure students’ English proficiency in four areas (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and are used to determine whether a student will stay in an English language learning program.

Since the WIDA test is typically given in the spring, schools were largely able to administer the 2020 assessment before the closures that year.

WIDA, one of the largest assessment programs for English learners in the country, demanded that its 2021 assessment be taken in person, even in places where students are still learning remotely. The move, resulting from concerns about the validity of a take-out test and students’ inability to access the Internet, caused some outcry. Lawyers claimed it was unfair and possibly dangerous to ask these students – most of whom are Latino, Asian and black – to enter school buildings with COVID-19 raging in their communities.

While WIDA 2021 data shows where candidates were in terms of language skills at the time of the test, experts say using the data to make hypotheses about the skills and growth of English learners as a population is problem.

“I would not use [2021] testing the data to say, ‘Oh, this is where we’re going as a nation’ other than seeing if that matches something that we have evidence of locally, ”said Kristina Robertson, administrator of the development program of the English language. in schools in the Roseville, Minnesota area.

Instead, the main value of the latest WIDA scores, according to experts, is to view them as a starting point for assessing the language skills and growth of English learners during the pandemic.

There are major caveats in reviewing the results

The 30% drop in the number of English learners taking the language assessment in 2021 raises a number of questions both in terms of students tested and those with missing scores.

For example, the results may be better or worse than the real results depending on whether the students who were tested had higher or lower language proficiency levels than those who were not tested, said Gary Cook, senior director of the evaluation at WIDA. This prevents an apples-to-apples comparison with past and future aggregate results.

State education agencies are even concerned that the most vulnerable English learners may not have been tested, said Amaya Garcia, deputy director of pre-K-12 education at think tank New America.

In Roseville District, there was a 17% decrease in the number of English learners taking the WIDA 2021 test compared to the previous year, and this despite outreach efforts such as providing transportation to school for the test during their distance learning year, said Robertson.

While she couldn’t say for sure why these students didn’t participate, she identified possible disconnections.

“It’s not a test they need to graduate. And parents are sort of wondering why I send my kid to take this test when he doesn’t even come to school to learn? she said.

Advocates for English learners in some states last year were pushing for parents to opt out of testing in person, or for testing to be delayed due to security concerns related to COVID. The federal government has encouraged these tests to continue into 2021, even if it means extending the testing window.

School closures have forced some schools to administer the test well during the current school year, as opposed to the traditional spring testing window, Cook said, perhaps giving some students more time than they did. others to develop their language skills before being assessed.

Robertson said bringing students into school buildings may also have affected their performance. Many students who were stuck at home for distance learning were seeing their peers for the first time in some time on test day, which was likely exciting and entertaining.

Even with the caveats in mind, the 2021 test results have potential use, said Derek Briggs, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and chairman of the National Measurement in Education Council, whose Members Design and Study K-12 Assessments: They’re a tool to help determine where individual students are with their English proficiency and what their needs are for the future.

But due to the major changes in the set of people tested, you cannot make any inferences about English learners as a population, even at the district level, he added.

What do we know about the results?

Amid all the caveats, aggregate student data for 2021 revealed an overall declining trend in language skills and growth compared to 2020 and 2019.

The impact of the pandemic, as the scores for 2021 show, varied by grade and each of the four language fields. There were relatively larger declines in speaking, according to the WIDA report, and in Grades 1 and 6.

Garcia, with New America, found concern that there were more declines in language growth in younger years, as there is hope that children will become proficient early enough to leave a learning program. of English in 4th year to avoid the risk of becoming a long-term English learner, which may end up academically stagnant.

And while Garcia was surprised that the decline in reading was not as great as in other fields, opening up the question of the importance of reading in virtual learning, the decline in speech was not. a shock.

“Virtual learning didn’t necessarily lend itself to a lot of talking and practicing speaking,” Garcia said.

Although going back to school in person may meet the need for more opportunities to develop oral skills, the decline is noticeable given the importance of speech for language learning in general, she added.

Educators should consider several factors

As the Robertson team in Minnesota examines the assessment results of local English learners, they keep in mind that students can do more in a classroom setting than in a standardized testing situation.

Standardized tests cannot, for example, track student progress in their native language, Robertson said. And test results alone should not be used to make assumptions about student progress.

“I just think there needs to be a broader conversation about data triangulation, about how we look at the multiple factors that come into play,” she said.

Robertson is also aware of the continued efforts of outreach staff within her district to determine the impact of the pandemic on students beyond academics. She knows, for example, that there have been several COVID-related deaths in their community of English learners.


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