English Learners’ Proficiency Scores Are Still in Decline, Data Find

English learners’ average English-language proficiency scores have remained in decline since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new assessment data from the WIDA consortium.

The WIDA consortium, which runs the ACCESS online language assessment, reported that average scores from 2023 across grade-level clusters remain lower than pre-pandemic averages. Pronounced declines appeared in grades 1-2. Scores from the assessment are an important component of how students exit out of English-learner status in close to 40 states.

An analysis by WIDA researchers published in a report this month also found disparities in scores worsened between English learners identified as Hispanic and non-Hispanic since the pandemic’s start.

Research was coming out, especially during the pandemic, that was talking about how English learners in general were at risk of being impacted by the pandemic because of a lot of issues. They included access to remote instruction, access to technology, and access to social interaction with peers, said Narék Sahakyan, a researcher for WIDA at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research who co-authored the new report.

While Sahakyan and other researchers advise educators to review their local context of how well English learners performed on their language assessment, the national overview paints an alarming picture, said Amaya Garcia, the director of P–12 research and practice at the think tank New America. She did not participate in the WIDA report.

“It points to a need for more research and unpacking of how those federal recovery dollars were utilized and if this was a population that ended up being overlooked,” Garcia said. “I think it also points to the continued struggle to ensure that all teachers are equipped to support the language development of their English-learner students.”

The 2023 ACCESS online assessment data provide a clearer picture of how English learners have fared in language proficiency since the pandemic’s start, given that in 2021, about 30 percent fewer English learners took the test, making comparisons back then hard to analyze.

Now that 1.9 million students took the 2023 test (compared with pre-pandemic highs of 1.5 million test-takers) researchers say that the 2021 estimated declines in proficiency perhaps underestimated how far scores fell, Sahakyan said.

When breaking down scores by the four language domains assessed (reading, listening, speaking, writing) researchers found that proficiency in reading and speaking has remained relatively consistent over the last six years. Listening has declined especially in the early-elementary grades. Writing was already on a downward trend before the pandemic and remained in decline across grade-level clusters.

One silver lining in the analysis found that while students in grades 1-2 saw lower average scores in proficiency, they were also the one group to show more growth in 2023.

“That’s one indicator that educators are working to support all students, especially the ones that are coming in at lower proficiency and that’s super important,” said Glenn Alan Poole, a project assistant on the WIDA report. “Especially because while English learners are acquiring English, they’re also still expected to learn academic content, and some of those students are remaining in [English learner] status for longer times into middle school and even high school.”

These younger students are critical to observe as they develop their English-language proficiency since these were children who likely missed preschool and other opportunities to develop the English language at the onset of the pandemic, Garcia said.

The latest analysis of assessment data also marked the first time WIDA researchers disaggregated results by the categories of Hispanic and non-Hispanic English learners. More than two-thirds of the nation’s English learners are Hispanic. ,According to the WIDA analysis, these students reported lower average English-language proficiency than their non-Hispanic peers.

“The needs of Latino students haven’t always been prioritized because there’s so many competing priorities. The way the [Latino] parents engage is different. The way advocacy looks is a little bit different. And so those data to me indicate that Hispanic [English learners] are being particularly underserved,” she said.

Researchers point to introspective questions educators can ask and things they can do when thinking about how to turn these scores around.

Sahakyan and Poole both urge educators to review their specific students’ ACCESS online assessment scores in their local context, such as reviewing the specific language instructional programs they offer.

Educators can review how students fared in dual-language classroom settings versus traditional targeted language instruction outside of mainstream classrooms, for instance.

They also recommend educators take further steps to disaggregate data by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

“If I was a public school or district administrator or policymaker, I would really focus my efforts in trying to see how large the disparities are, by whatever measure of socioeconomic status that the school or the district may have within the English-learner population, but also for the general student population, and try to come up with some interventions or some remedies,” Sahakyan said.

Garcia also recommends educators review how well they are integrating language instruction in all subject areas and mainstream classrooms. Professional development programs in the last few years have emphasized the importance of this integration, however, putting research into practice has not yet taken a sweeping hold, she added.

“I would recommend that [educators] really interrogate their policies and practices to really understand, are we treating the needs of English learners as an add-on? Or is it something that we’re integrating holistically into the ethos of the way our schools operate?” Garcia said.