Disagreement Among School Districts Regarding Impact of COVID on English Learners’ Test Scores

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According to experts and advocates, English learners have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and require targeted support. However, some school district leaders are not yet concerned about the data.

Results from state tests in 2023 show that English learners have fallen further behind their peers compared to 2019, and they are struggling more to recover.

The largest decrease in proficiency between 2019 and this year is among English learners on the main state tests in English language arts and math. They also showed less growth. For example, among students taking the SAT and PSAT, only students with disabilities showed less growth.

The recovery of English learners from the pandemic has been a nationwide challenge. Test scores are not the only indication of how English learners in Colorado schools are faring. For instance, while nearly a third of Colorado students were chronically absent last year, 40% of English learners missed enough school to be labeled as chronically absent. In Colorado, English learners make up 12% of all K-12 students, with some districts having higher concentrations.

There have been two notable approaches to supporting English learners academically in the wake of COVID.

In some school districts where English learners made more progress or had better growth than non-English learners, co-teaching was prioritized instead of pulling students out of mainstream classes for English language development instruction. Additionally, at least one district used federal COVID aid to provide tutoring for these students. Some district leaders also reported increased interest among teachers in learning strategies specifically designed for English learners.

However, in other districts, leaders have not allocated specific resources or implemented strategies to support English learners. Despite recent data and warnings from state analysts, these leaders deny that the pandemic has had a significant impact on these students, citing changes in the makeup of the English learner population as one of the factors.

“There are districts that don’t seem to be very concerned with emerging bilingual students,” said Cynthia Trinidad-Sheahan, president of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education.

The provision of additional resources and support to these students may depend on Colorado politics. When asked about how the state education agency would address the achievement gap between English learners and their peers, Associate Commissioner Floyd Cobb stated that it would be a matter for the General Assembly to address.

Most test score data shows a negative trend

When schools transitioned to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic, some struggled to continue providing English language development. Students lacked the necessary environment to practice their new language, and many families faced challenges in supporting their children’s access to remote learning. Even when schools resumed in-person instruction, some families of English learners were more hesitant to send their children back to classrooms.

Differences in test scores between English learners and native English speakers are not new. One contributing factor is that the majority of English learners are tested in English before they have a complete grasp of the language.

A small number of students are allowed to take the test in Spanish for a limited period. However, the results show that these students performed worse than their counterparts in 2019, while native English speakers at the same grade levels have nearly recovered.

The scores on this year’s ACCESS test, which measures students’ English fluency, indicate a lower proficiency rate in 2023 compared to 2019. Among first graders, the percentage of students scoring at the lowest level increased from 9.4% four years ago to 23.3% this year.

While the decline

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