Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Bilingüe, Educación y Éxito: Learning from Dual Language Education Programs

April is National Bilingual/Multilingual Learner Advocacy Month! As part of the IES 20th Anniversary celebration, we are highlighting NCER’s investments in field-initiated research. In this guest blog, Drs. Doré LaForett and Ximena Franco-Jenkins (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) and Adam Winsler (George Mason University) discuss their IES-funded exploration study, some challenges they encountered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how their study contributes to supporting multilingual students.

The BEE Project

Our IES-funded study, called the Bilingualism, Education, and Excellence (BEE) project, was born out of a research partnership initiated by a principal of a Spanish-English dual-language (DLE) elementary school. She noticed that student engagement in DLE classrooms seemed to differ depending on the student’s home language and the language of instruction. This got us thinking about how we as a field know very little about what goes on in two-way immersion (TWI) classrooms in terms of teacher language use, student-teacher relationships, student engagement, and learning outcomes for students who speak Spanish or English at home. Therefore, we were excited for the opportunity to dig deeper into links between language of instruction and academic outcomes for students in a relatively new immigrant community like North Carolina. Specifically, we were interested in whether and how the amount of instruction in English and Spanish is related to improvements in student academic outcomes in English and Spanish.

We conducted extensive individual direct student assessments at the beginning and end of the school year, as well as intensive classroom observations to assess both language of instruction and student on-task engagement during both English and Spanish instruction. Although we are still analyzing the data, preliminary findings suggest that language model (90% Spanish/10% English vs. 50% Spanish/50% English), type of 50/50 model used (switching language of instruction mid-day vs alternating days), and initial student language proficiency all matter for student engagement and academic outcomes assessed in English and Spanish. For some outcomes, students with low language proficiency had lower average spring scores when in the 50/50 model compared with students in the 90/10 model. In contrast, students with high language proficiency had higher average spring scores when in the 50/50 model compared with the 90/10 model. In addition, students who speak mostly English at home have a hard time staying engaged on the Spanish day in 50/50 alternate programs.

Impact of COVID-19 on Our Research and Pivots Made

Although we are excited about these findings, like many other studies, we encountered challenges with conducting our study when the pandemic hit. While some studies may have been able to pivot and resume data collection using a remote platform, we had to pause data collection activities during spring 2020 and the 2020-21 school year given our study design and the context in which our research was being conducted. For instance, we used gold-standard, English/Spanish, parallel direct assessments of children which required it to be in person since on-line versions were not available. Also, classroom- and student-level observations were not possible when instruction was remote because, for example, cameras were turned off or there was a lack of access to remote or hybrid learning platforms, due to issues such as contactless video recording technologies that prioritize the talk of only one individual in the classroom rather than the entire class or do not allow for focused observations of individual student behavior.

Therefore, our top priority was maintaining our partnerships with the school districts during the ‘sleeper year.’ We kept in touch and followed our partners’ lead as to when and how we could resume. Meanwhile, we tried to understand what school districts were doing for DLE instruction (in-person, hybrid, remote) during the pandemic. The research team found it necessary to shift tasks during the pandemic, and our efforts were centered on data management and dissemination activities. Once schools started to reopen in 2021-22, our team continued to be patient and flexible to address the health and visitor regulations of the various school districts. In the end, we had one year of data pre-pandemic, one pandemic year without spring data, and one year of data post-pandemic.

Despite these challenges, we used this opportunity to gather information about the learning experiences of students enrolled in the final year of our study, who had been exposed to remote or hybrid learning during the 2020-21 school year. So, when schools reopened in fall 2021, we asked our schools about what instruction was like during the pandemic, and we also asked teachers and parents what they thought about dual language progress during the 2020-21 school year. Teachers were more likely to report that students made good gains in their language skills over that year compared to parents. Further, parents who reported greater English-speaking learning opportunities during remote instruction tended to speak primarily English at home and have more education. Parents who reported that their child had difficulties participating in remote instruction due to technology tended to speak more Spanish at home and have less education.

These findings show how inequities in the home environment, such as those experienced during the pandemic, may have reduced learning opportunities for some students in DLE programs. This is particularly noteworthy because the social experience of language learning is critical in DLE programs, so reduced opportunities to speak in English and Spanish—particularly for students who are not yet fully bilingual or do not live in bilingual homes, can really undermine the goals of DLE programs. These reduced learning opportunities also give us pause as we consider how best to test for cohort effects, choose appropriate procedures for dealing with the missing data, and proceed cautiously with generalizing findings.

A Focus on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Our research is grounded in the cultural mismatch theory, where DLE programs are hypothesized to produce greater alignment or match with English learners’ (ELs’) home environments compared to non-DLE programs. By design, DLE programs that support heritage languages seek to promote bilingualism, bi-literacy, and biculturalism which bolster ELs’ social capital, increase academic performance and reduce the achievement gap for ELs. Thus, effective DLE programs are examples of anti-racist policies and practices. However, some have suggested that DLE programs may be conferring more benefits for White, native English speakers (that is, the Matthew effect, where the rich get richer) compared to the students whose heritage language and culture is being elevated in DLE programs. This is especially concerning given our data showing a potential exacerbation of the Matthew effect during the pandemic due to a variety of factors (lack of access to technology, less-educated families struggling to support their children during remote instruction) suggesting not only learning loss but also language loss. Our research is attempting to open the black box of DLE programs in such classrooms and examine whether experiences, engagement, and outcomes are similar across language backgrounds. We hope that information from our study about the intersection of language proficiency and language of instruction will facilitate decisions regarding how students are assigned to different language models and ultimately support equitable learning opportunities for students attending DLE programs.

Ximena Franco-Jenkins is an Advanced Research Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Adam Winsler is an Associate Chair Professor at George Mason University.

Doré R. LaForett is an Advanced Research Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This blog was produced by Helyn Kim (, Program Officer for the English Learners Portfolio, NCER.


Pennsylvania Student Proficiency Rates Rebound Partially from COVID-19-Related Declines

Given the magnitude of the disruption the COVID-19 pandemic caused to education practices, there has been considerable interest in understanding how the pandemic may have affected student proficiency. In this guest blog, Stephen Lipscomb, Duncan Chaplin, Alma Vigil, and Hena Matthias of Mathematica discuss their IES-funded grant project, in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), that is looking at the pandemic’s impacts in Pennsylvania.  

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020 brought on a host of changes to K–12 education and instruction in Pennsylvania. Many local education agencies (LEAs) instituted remote learning and hybrid schedules as their primary mode of educating students, while others maintained in-person learning. Statewide assessments, which were suspended in spring 2020, resumed in 2021 with low participation rates, particularly among students with lower performance before the pandemic. Furthermore, test administration dates varied from spring 2021 to fall 2021. Pennsylvania statewide assessment data reveal that student proficiency rates may have rebounded in 2022, despite remaining below pre-pandemic levels. In grades 5–8, there was a marked increase in proficiency in English language arts (ELA) and a slightly smaller increase in proficiency in math compared to 2021 proficiency rates predicted in recent research. Despite these gains, increasing student proficiency rates to pre-pandemic levels will require additional efforts.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has been committed to providing LEAs with the resources and support necessary to help students achieve pre-pandemic academic proficiency rates. To learn more about changes in how those rates may have been associated with the pandemic, PDE and Mathematica partnered to explore trends in student proficiency data for students in grades 5–8. Given the lower and nonrepresentative participation in the 2021 statewide assessments, as well as the differences in when LEAs administered the assessments, we developed a predictive model of statewide proficiency rates for spring 2021 to produce predicted proficiency rates that would be more comparable to previous and future years. The results revealed that steep declines in proficiency likely occurred between 2019 and 2021 (see Figure 1 below). By spring 2022, proficiency rates in grades 5–8 regained 6 percentage points of their 10 percentage point drop in ELA and nearly 5 percentage points of their 13 percentage point drop in math. Taken together, these results suggest that although the pandemic may have originally been associated with declines in students’ academic proficiency, over time, student proficiency might move back towards pre-pandemic levels.


Figure 1. Actual and predicted proficiency rates in grades 5–8 in Pennsylvania, 2015–2022

The figure shows actual proficiency rates from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, averaged across grades 5–8, unless marked by either an open or closed circle. Notes: Open circle indicates Statewide assessment cancelled; closed circle indicates predicted proficiency rate. The figure shows actual proficiency rates from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, averaged across grades 5–8, unless marked by either an open or closed circle.

Source: Data from 2015–2019 and 2022 are from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The 2021 data are predicted proficiency rates from Lipscomb et al. (2022a). The figure originally appeared in Lipscomb et al. (2022b).  


The next steps for this project will include a strong focus on dissemination of our findings. For example, we will develop a research brief that describes the role of remote learning in shaping academic outcomes beyond proficiency rates and community health outcomes during the pandemic. The findings will help PDE and LEAs refine strategies for supporting vulnerable students and help state policymakers and educators learn from the COVID-19 pandemic—specifically how it might have affected student outcomes and educational inequities.

This blog was produced by Allen Ruby (, Associate Commissioner for Policy and Systems Division, NCER.

What do Geometry Projects and Pie Have in Common?

On March 14, many students across the country will be paying homage to one of the most important irrational numbers – Pi (or π), the mathematical constant that represents the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter. Here at IES, we are celebrating Pi Day in two ways – one, by highlighting two projects that are helping students better understand and apply pi and other geometry concepts, and two, by daydreaming about the other kind of pie (more on that below).

Highlighting Two IES-Funded Geometry Projects

Julie Booth (Temple University) and colleagues are developing and testing an intervention, GeometryByExample, to improve student learning of high school geometry. GeometryByExample provides strategically designed, worked-example based assignments of varied geometric content for students to complete in class in place of more typical practice assignments. Instead of solving all of the practice problems themselves, students study correct or incorrect examples of solutions to half of the problems and respond to prompts asking them to write explanations of why those procedures are correct or incorrect.

Candace Walkington and colleagues are exploring how the interaction between collaboration and multisensory experiences affects geometric reasoning. They are using augmented reality (AR) technology to explore different modalities for math learning, such as a hologram, a set of physical manipulatives, a dynamic geometry system (DGS) on a tablet, or a piece of paper. Each of these modalities has different affordances, including the degree to which they can represent dynamic transformations, represent objects and operations in 3 dimensions, support joint attention, and provide situational feedback. Researchers have developed an experimental platform that uses AR and situates experimental tasks in an engaging narrative story. The overarching research questions they are exploring are (1) How does shared AR impact student understanding of geometric principles? (2) how are these effects mediated by gesture, language, and actions? and (3) how are these effects moderated by student and task characteristics?

The Other Kind of Pi(e)

Baking pies with the pi symbol is another fun way to celebrate the day, so in the spirit of that, we asked NCER and NCSER staff about their favorite pie flavors. Below is a pie graph with the results – not much consensus on flavor, but it’s clear we all love pie. Happy Pi Day!

This chart shows NCER and NCSER staff pie preferences in percentages: Apple 19%, Cherry 19%, Chocolate 12%, Key Lime 12%, Peach 6%, Pecan 19%, and Rhubarb 13%.


Written by Christina Chhin ( and Erin Higgins (, NCER Program Officers.

Innovative Approaches to High Quality Assessment of SEL Skills

In celebration of IES’s 20th anniversary and SEL Day, we are highlighting NCER’s investments in field-initiated research. In this blog, program officer Dr. Emily Doolittle discusses a persistent barrier to supporting social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools—the lack of high quality, reliable, and valid SEL assessments—and the innovative research supported by IES to tackle this challenge.

High quality measurement is critical for education research and practice. Researchers need valid and reliable assessments to answer questions about what works for whom and why. Schools use assessments to guide instruction, determine student response to intervention, and for high-stakes decision-making such as provision of special education services.

For social and emotional learning (SEL), assessment can be particularly challenging due to lack of precision in defining core SEL competencies. One consequence of this imprecision is that measures and intervention targets are often misaligned. SEL assessment also tends to rely on student, teacher, and parent reports despite the lack of agreement among reporters and the potential for biased responding. Through NCER, IES is supporting the development and validation of SEL measures using new technologies and approaches to address some of these challenges. Here are some examples of this innovative measurement work.

  • SELweb is a web-based direct assessment of four specific SEL skills - emotion recognition, social perspective taking, social problem solving, and self-control. It is available for use with elementary school students in grades K-3 and 4-6 with a middle school version currently under development. The SEL Quest Digital Platform will support school-based implementation of SELweb and other SEL assessments with an instrument library and a reporting dashboard for educators.
  • vSchool uses a virtual reality (VR) environment to assess prosocial skills. Students in 4th to 6th grades build their own avatar to interact with other characters in school settings using menu-driven choices for prosocial (helping, encouraging, sharing) and non-prosocial (aggressive, bullying, teasing) behaviors.
  • VESIP (Virtual Environment for Social Information Processing) also uses a VR school environment with customizable avatars to assess 3rd through 7th grade students’ social information processing in both English and Spanish.

Other assessments take a different approach to the challenges of SEL measurement by looking for ways to improve self, teacher, and parent reports.

  • In Project MIDAS, the research team is creating a system to integrate the different information provided by students, teachers, and parents to see if combining these reports will lead to more accurate identification of middle school students with SEL needs.
  • In Project EASS-E, the researchers are creating a teacher-report measure that will incorporate information about a child’s environment (e.g., neighborhood and community context) to better support elementary school students’ needs.

Please check out IES’s search tool to learn more about the wide variety of measurement research we fund to develop and validate high quality assessments for use in education research and practice.

Written by Emily Doolittle (, NCER Team Lead for Social Behavioral Research


Adult Education and Foundational Skills Grantee Spotlight: Dr. Daphne Greenberg’s Advice for New Researchers

As part of the IES 20th Anniversary, NCER is reflecting on the past, present, and future of adult education research. In this blog, Dr. Daphne Greenberg, Distinguished University Professor at Georgia State University, reflects on her connection to adult education and gives advice to researchers interested in this field. Dr. Greenberg has served as the principal investigator (PI) on three NCER grants, including the Center for the Study of Adult Literacy, and is also co-PI on three current NCER grants (1, 2, 3). She helped found the Georgia Adult Literacy Advocacy group and the Literacy Alliance of Metro Atlanta and has tutored adult learners and engaged in public awareness about adult literacy, including giving a TedTalk: Do we care about us? Daphne Greenberg at TEDxPeachtree.

Head Shot of Daphne GreenbergWhat got you interested in adult education research?

During graduate school, I was a volunteer tutor for a woman who grew up in a southern sharecropper family, did not attend school, and was reading at the first-grade level. Her stories helped me understand why learning was important to her. For example, her sister routinely stole money from her bank account because she couldn’t balance her checkbook.

I began wondering whether adults and children reading at the same level had similar strengths and weaknesses and whether the same word-reading components were equally important for them. I later published an article that became a classic in adult literacy research about this.

Over the years, I have grown to admire adult learners for their unique stories and challenges and am deeply impressed with their “grit” and determination even when faced with difficulties. When I watch a class of native-born adults reading below the 8th grade levels, I am inspired by them and yet deeply conflicted about our K-12 system and how many students aren’t getting what they need from it.

How does your personal experience influence your perspective?

I think my childhood and family planted the seeds. My grandfather ran a grocery store but had only a third-grade education. My parents were immigrants who worked hard to navigate a new culture and language, and I struggled with reading in English and English vocabulary growing up. As a result, I understand how people hide and compensate for academic weaknesses.

Also, my brother has profound autism. As a child, I insisted that I could teach him many skills, and I did. This taught me patience and the joy one feels when even the smallest gain is made.

As an adult, I mess up idioms, use Hebraic sentence structure, and need help with editing. I also have a visual condition that causes me to miss letters when I read and write. These difficulties help me relate to the struggles of adult learners. I often feel deep embarrassment when I make mistakes. But I am very fortunate that I have colleagues who celebrate my strengths and honor my weaknesses. Not all of our adult learners are as fortunate.

What should researchers new to adult education know about the system?

Adult education serves students with significant needs and numerous goals—from preparing for employment or postsecondary education to acquiring skills needed to pass the citizenship exam or helping their children with homework. But the adult education system has less public funding than K-12 or postsecondary systems.

Many of the educators are part-time or volunteers and may not have a background in teaching—or at least in teaching adults. There just aren’t the same level of professional development opportunities, technological and print instructional resources, infrastructure, or supporting evidence-based research that other education systems have. 

What should researchers know about adult learners?

As a starting point, here are three things that I think researchers should know about adult learners:

  • What it means to live in poverty. For example, I once worked with a researcher who, when told that adult learners wouldn’t have access to the internet, replied “That’s not an issue. They can take their laptops to a Starbucks to access the Internet.”
  • That adult learners are motivated. The fact that they have inconsistent attendance does not mean that they are not motivated. It means that they have difficult lives, and if we were in their shoes, we would also have difficulty attending on a regular basis.
  • That adult learners’ oral vocabulary often matches their reading vocabulary. If you want adult learners to understand something, such as informed consents, realize that their oral vocabulary often is very similar to their reading grade equivalencies and consider simplifying complex vocabulary and syntax structure.

What specific advice do you have about conducting research with adult learners?

Testing always takes longer to complete than anticipated. I never pull students out from classes for testing because their class time is so precious. So they have to be available after or before class to participate in research, and this can be problematic. We often need to reschedule an assessment because public transportation is late, a job shift suddenly changes, or a family member is sick.

Finding enough of particular types of students is difficult because sites often attract different demographics. For example, one site may have primarily 16- and 17-year-olds, another site may have mostly non-native speakers, and another site may have either lower- or higher-skilled adult learners.

Having a “clean” comparison group at the same site is challenging because of intervention “leakage” to nonintervention teachers.  Adult education teachers are often so hungry for resources that they may try to peak into classrooms while an intervention is in process, get access to materials, or otherwise learn about the intervention. Their desire for anything that might help students makes contamination a concern.  

What areas of adult education could use more research?

I think that policymakers and practitioners would benefit from many areas of research, but two come to mind.

  • How to measure outcomes and demonstrate “return”: Many funding agencies require “grade level” growth, but it can take years for skills to consolidate and manifest as grade level change. In the meantime, adults may have found a job, gotten promoted, feel more comfortable interacting with their children’s schools, voted for the first time, etc. Are we measuring the right things in the right way? Are we measuring the things that matter to students, programs, and society? Should life improvements have equal or even more weight than growth on standardized tests? After how much time should we expect to see the life improvements (months, years, decades)?
  • How to create useful self-paced materials for adults who need to “stop-out”: Due to the complexities of our learners’ lives, many have to “stop-out” for a period before resuming class attendance. These adults would benefit from resources that they could use on their own, at their own pace during this time. What is the best practice for delivery of these types of resources? Does this “best practice” depend on the adult’s ability level? Does it depend on the content area? 

Any final words for researchers new to adult education?

I extend a warm welcome to anyone interested in research with adult learners. You will discover that many adult learners are eager to participate in research studies. They feel good helping researchers with their work and are hopeful that their time will help them or be of help to future learners. I highly recommend that you collaborate with researchers and/or practitioners who are familiar with the adult education context to help smooth the bumps you will inevitably experience.

This blog was produced by Dr. Meredith Larson (, research analyst and program officer at NCER.