Test scores say COVID was especially rough on English learners. Not all school districts agree.

A woman wearing glasses and a school lanyard sits at a rectangular table with four adolescent students as she holds her finger up while explaining. The walls of the classroom are covered in posters and signs with English keywords and vocabulary.
Results from Colorado’s 2023 state tests show English learners are further behind their peers from 2019, and they’re struggling more to get back on track than other groups of students. (Nathan W. Armes for Chalkbeat)

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English learners might have been hit especially hard during the pandemic and need extra targeted support, experts and advocates say. But some school district leaders aren’t yet concerned about the data.

Results from 2023 state tests show English learners are further behind their peers from 2019 compared with other student groups, and they’re struggling more to get back on track. 

On the main state tests in English language arts and math, the biggest falloff in proficiency between 2019 and this year is for English learners. They also showed less growth. Of those taking the SAT and PSAT for example, only students with disabilities showed less growth. 

Helping English learners recover from the pandemic has been a complex problem nationwide.  And test scores aren’t the only warning sign about how English learners in Colorado schools are faring: While nearly a third of Colorado students were chronically absent last year, for example, 40% of English learners missed enough school to get that label. In Colorado, English learners make up 12% of all K-12 students. Some districts have much higher concentrations than others. 

There have been two notable approaches to English learners in COVID’s wake when it comes to academics.

A handful of school districts where English learners made up more ground than the average, or had better growth than non-English learners, said they prioritized co-teaching instead of pulling students out of mainstream classes to receive specific instruction on English language development. At least one district used federal COVID aid to give those students tutoring. And some district leaders also said they’ve noticed more teachers are now interested in learning strategies that specifically help English learners.

But in other districts, leaders say they haven’t devoted specific resources or strategies to help English learners. In fact, regardless of recent data and what state analysts say about it, they deny that the pandemic had an outsized impact on these students. They point to the changing makeup of English learners, among other 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, 

Whether these students get extra resources and support could depend on Colorado politics. After the Colorado Department of Education published the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS) scores in August, Associate Commissioner Floyd Cobb answered a question about how the agency would help close the gap between English learners and their peers by saying: “That’ll need to be answered by the General Assembly.”

Most test score data shows negative trend

When schools instituted remote learning at the start of the pandemic, some schools struggled to keep offering English language development. Students didn’t have an environment in which to practice their new language, and at home many of their families struggled to support them in accessing remote learning. And when schools resumed in-person instruction, some families of English learners were more reluctant than others to immediately send their children back to classrooms. 

Test score disparities between English learners and native English speakers aren’t new. One reason is that the vast majority of English learners are testing in English before they have a full grasp of the language. 

A limited number of students can take the test in Spanish for a couple of years. But results show those students did much worse than their 2019 counterparts, while native English speakers in the same grade levels have nearly recovered.  

This year’s scores on the ACCESS test, which measures students’ English fluency, show that a smaller share of students are proficient in 2023 than in 2019. And four years ago, 9.4% of first graders scored at a level 1, the lowest level. But in 2023, 23.3% of first graders scored at the lowest level. 

In some cases, the decline in the share of English learners achieving proficiency is just a handful of percentage points. But that doesn’t necessarily capture the pandemic’s impact. 

For example, out of every 100 English learners in the fourth grade who took the CMAS language arts test for reading and writing, roughly eight met expectations, down from about 12 out of 100 in 2019.  For every 100 students who aren’t English learners, about 49 met expectations this year, where 54 out of 100 met expectations in 2019.

Both groups’ proficiency rates dropped by around four to five percentage points. But four fewer English learners achieving proficiency means their share of who met expectations has dropped by roughly a third — far more proportionally than the decline for non-English learners.

Separately, CMAS growth scores, in which students’ performance is compared to peers who performed similarly in the past, also show English learners aren’t making the same growth as other student groups now, or as English learners did in the past. Students who are behind need a growth score above 50, on a scale of 0-100, to catch up. 

When the state released CMAS scores in August, state officials said that groups of historically disadvantaged students were back to growth levels from before the pandemic, except for multilingual learners on English language arts. They said that without accelerating their learning, those students “will continue to fall further behind.”

“I believe we have a credible amount of evidence to be able to say that our English learners were impacted by COVID — and impacted disproportionately,” said Joyce Zurkowski, chief assessment officer for the Colorado Department of Education. 

Some districts downplay negative trends for English learners

Despite what the data tells people like Zurkwoski, some district leaders think that the data for English learners in 2019 isn’t comparable to data for English learners in 2023 because of the recent waves of immigrants from Afghanistan, Ukraine, and South America, changing the demographics and make up of those groups.

State officials say that while that has impacted many districts, the numbers of new arrivals aren’t enough to completely account for all of the drops in achievement data.

District leaders have had access to state test data for months but have focused on different data points.

In Cherry Creek, district leaders say they’re monitoring how many students are becoming proficient in English. In Colorado, to move a student out of the English learner designation, teachers use ACCESS scores and state test score data. But they can also use their own observations and internal data to make the case that a student no longer requires specific English classes and services.

Holly Porter, director of language supports for Cherry Creek, said that typically about 85% of students are deemed English proficient within three years of entering the district, and 95% reach that status within five years. 

Although the most recent numbers aren’t available yet, Porter said that trend has remained consistent. 

When she looks at CMAS scores and other state data, Porter points out that participation dropped, including among English learners. One reason is that in 2018, the federal government asked states to allow some newcomer students to not take state language arts tests for the first year they’re enrolled. 

These students tended to show very high growth because they were starting from a point of knowing no English. Porter said excluding these students made data for English learners look worse. 

But that change was already in effect before the pandemic struck.

Still, for Porter, when comparing the pre-pandemic environment to what followed, she says “it’s just not the same kids, not the same data, not the same experiences. For me there’s too many variables there to say this is a definite issue until I can look at it for a couple years out of COVID.”

From 2019 to 2023, the growth score of Cherry Creek’s English learners fell from 48 to 45. Growth scores for non-English learners went up from 46 to 50 over the same time span. 

Porter said, however, that growth scores for students who have reached English proficiency have held steady at 53. Students remain monitored as former English learners for two years after they stop receiving language services. Seeing that these students do well on state tests, and that the percentage of students exiting services is still high, Porter said, is additional reassurance that students are getting the English instruction they need to do well in school after they stop getting services.

Porter said the district isn’t necessarily doing anything to target the recovery of English learners, though 350 newcomer students are getting tutoring through a grant. 

“We found that a lot of students were behind, not just multilingual learners,” she said.

In the Harrison school district, leaders also are slightly skeptical about comparing this year’s data with pre-pandemic scores. English learners in Harrison showed above average growth on ACCESS tests in 2019, with a score of 61, but that dropped rapidly to 51 in 2023. On CMAS language arts and math tests, student growth scores showed that English learners made less progress than other students.

While Cherry Creek attributes lower scores to excluding data from newcomer students, leaders in Harrison say a large influx of newcomers has contributed to lower scores. Both say the population of students has changed from from 2019 to 2023.

District leaders say that’s because starting in January 2021, they saw a dramatic increase in the number of refugees from Afghanistan, Guatemala, and Honduras who aren’t native English speakers.

Rachel Laufer, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, said the challenges that come with more newcomers is that “schools are working to support not only the language and academic needs of families, but also the other barriers that exist for families that are new to the county.” That includes helping with transportation, housing, and other resources.

While they aren’t worried about the data, Harrison district leaders said they have made some changes to how they help English learners and newcomers in particular.

In the last few years, the district has tried to increase staffing to ensure there is at least one licensed teacher working with English learners at each school, instead of having to have them split their time across sites. The district is also slowly trying more co-teaching. 

Laufer said Harrison prioritized bringing back groups like English learners and students with disabilities to in-person classes. But when the district used hybrid learning and parents could decide whether to send their children to school, English learners were more likely to stay home. 

“It was a bigger concern for them,” Laufer said. “I think you could connect that to some of the data.”

Getting teachers enthusiastic about helping English learners

There are a few Colorado districts where some of the data was more positive for English learners.

In Pueblo 60, for example, the growth score this year for English learners on the CMAS language arts test is now higher than it is for non-English learners. In Weld County 3J, their growth score in math improved from 2019 to 2023. 

The improvement isn’t uniform within districts. In 3J, for example, despite the significant growth improvements on CMAS math tests, growth scores for ACCESS tests dropped from 56 in 2019 to 41.5 in 2023.

Adams 14 students, meanwhile, showed significant growth on ACCESS tests for English fluency — the highest among large districts — but they didn’t show improvement on other state tests.

In Pueblo, district leaders said that they were working on revamping education for English learners even before the pandemic. 

The high school opened a center for newcomer students seven years ago. For the last five years, the district has worked on its philosophy of teaching and on aligning instruction to content standards. 

Both Pueblo and 3J have also worked to reduce the extent to which students are pulled out of classes to receive English language instruction, a strategy also happening in other districts like Harrison and Boulder where the data is less positive. 

In Pueblo 60 elementary schools, pull-out instruction no longer occurs during math or reading classes. In middle school, teachers are going into students’ classes instead of pulling them out. 

That was a change suggested by teachers themselves.

“They really were in tune with what their students needed and so we took a cue from them and said ‘well lets go ahead and try that and see if that made a difference,’” said Lisa Casarez, Pueblo’s English language acquisition specialist. Now, for the middle schools, she thinks it has.

State data show English learners in Pueblo 60 middle schools had higher growth scores on language arts CMAS tests than elementary students or non-English learner middle school peers.

In both 3J and Pueblo, leaders said they’ve seen more enthusiasm from all teachers to learn how to help their English learners.

3J leaders traced that shift to a few years ago when the district rolled out state-mandated rules requiring many teachers to receive training in Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education when they renewed their licenses. 

That meant that learning how to help these students didn’t just fall to the dedicated staff member licensed to work with English learners. 

“We’ve seen a lot of interest from general education teachers to support multilingual learners,” said Jenny Wakeman, assistant superintendent for 3J. “That’s something they’ve done naturally.”

Additional funding also helped. Wakeman said her district used some federal pandemic aid — known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER — to provide additional interventions specifically for English learners, including before- and after-school tutoring. 

In the meantime, she said teachers started a book club to learn even more about how to help students who are learning English. That’s the kind of attitude that Zurkowski of the Colorado education department says is necessary to help those students catch up. 

“We know that those gaps were large pre-pandemic, they are large post-pandemic,” Zurkowski said. “They warrant intensive intervention efforts.”

Yesenia Robles is a reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado covering K-12 school districts and multilingual education. Contact Yesenia at yrobles@chalkbeat.org.

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