High-Quality Testing Data Is Essential to Ensure Equitable Resource Allocation to Remedy Pandemic-Linked Gaps for English Learner Students
WASHINGTON — Statewide testing to measure the academic performance of students was paused during the first, disrupted year of the COVID-19 pandemic as schooling moved online, and assessments came back in abbreviated format when many pupils returned to the classroom for the 2020-21 school year. Yet with many school districts and states not tracking or publicly reporting on how instruction varied across key demographics, it is difficult to assess how the nation’s 5 million English Learner (EL) students fared. The data that exist, though, suggest that drops in EL performance “should set off alarm bells,” a new report from the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy finds.
With states and school districts receiving an historic $122 billion from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund that was passed as part of the American Rescue Plan, understanding the widespread variation in students’ educational experiences amid instruction of variable quality is key in directing resources to remedy gaps.
The report, English Learner Testing during the Pandemic: An Early Readout and Look Ahead, provides an overview of the schooling experience for ELs during the 2020–21 academic year. It then considers how states approached administering statewide summative assessments, which evaluate student performance against states’ standards and are typically administered toward the end of the school year, and what the data from these tests can and cannot reveal about ELs’ learning during this unprecedented period. The report concludes with a discussion of some early warning indicators related to the pandemic’s effects on ELs and strategies for supporting them in educational recovery plans.
“On their own, states’ 2020–21 assessment results might convey little about students’ learning,” writes Melissa Lazarin, a senior advisor for K-12 policy at the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. “However, the widespread variation in students’ educational experiences during the pandemic has also fueled calls for state assessments as a way to document student performance during this highly unusual period and inform investments to support recovery.”
While state data systems lacked the agility to precisely document and measure the pandemic’s impact on students and their academic learning, declines in English language arts and especially math proficiency rates were evident across all demographics in many states during the 2020-21 school year, and for ELs, in English language development.
Although chronic absenteeism is not especially characteristic of ELs, school districts started reporting lower attendance rates among these students early in the pandemic. EL enrollment also declined. “Altogether, there is ample evidence that the pandemic has taken a disproportionate toll on ELs,” Lazarin writes. “However, with school districts largely operating independently and under different conditions, objective data are limited regarding student learning during what has been a public education emergency as well as a public-health crisis.”
Despite their shortcomings, the upended statewide assessment systems are one of the few transparent measures that parents and stakeholders seeking to advance educational equity have to evaluate student growth and identify new or growing learning gaps that demand attention.
As decisions are made about how to use federal relief dollars, state policymakers and school leaders should use state assessment data coupled with other metrics to inform investments and interventions that are personalized for ELs, the report argues. Strategies should include investing in:
- High-dosage tutoring and acceleration initiatives that are staffed with teachers and paraprofessionals who are experienced with classroom content and working with ELs.
- Sustained and content-focused professional development for all teachers to support ELs in their classrooms.
- Strengthened partnerships with immigrant-led, community-based organizations to support family engagement, increased learning time efforts, and student social and emotional well-being.
The pandemic has recharged efforts to improve state testing and accountability systems. The report offers several subjects for deeper consideration and research, including how data derived from sources other than assessments are used alongside testing data and how to boost data transparency and reporting to inform equity efforts. It also suggests revisiting what schools should consider “normal” and “ambitious” growth in students’ language and academic development, given the pandemic’s disruptions to student learning trajectories.
“Data reporting on ELs in many states was not transparent, contextualized, or accessible, and in some cases, such data simply went unreported,” the report concludes. “While such concerns precede the pandemic, this unprecedented period has raised the stakes. Education officials at all levels should uphold their responsibility to ensure that assessment and other data are effectively communicated to parents and other stakeholders.”
Read the report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/english-learner-testing-pandemic.