Lisa Hsin and Ashley Pierson are senior researchers at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). Along with other members of the REL Southwest team, Drs. Hsin and Pierson conducted the recently published research study discussed here, English Learner Proficiency in Texas Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
After the first school closures and shift to virtual instruction began in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, education experts began to worry that the learning opportunities students had in the new virtual formats might not be enough to support their continued academic progress. Many of these concerns were about foundational skills like reading and math (Kuhfeld et al., 2020), and research over the last two years has validated those concerns (Dawson, 2021).
Another skill that is just as foundational as reading and math is English language proficiency for students whose primary language is not English. For the nation's 5.1 million English learner students,1 closing school buildings meant fewer opportunities to engage in academic conversations in English (Garcia-Arena & D'Souza, 2020; U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2022). In addition, English learner students had less access to internet, received fewer instructional hours, and were more likely to lose a family member to COVID-19 than their non-English learner peers (U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2020; U.S. Department of Education, 2021).
A national study of scores on the ACCESS for ELLs, the most widely used annual assessment of English language proficiency, suggested that growth in English language proficiency declined between 2019/20 and 2020/21, especially in listening and speaking (Sahakyan & Cook, 2021). However, Texas was not part of that study because they use their own Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System (TELPAS) to measure English learner students' annual progress in English language proficiency. The state of Texas serves more than one million English learner students, or one fifth of English learner students in the United States. What was their progress toward English language proficiency during the pandemic?
To understand how Texas English learner students fared during the pandemic, REL Southwest partnered with the Texas Education Agency and embarked on a research study of Texas English learner students' English language proficiency before and during the pandemic. The study examined TELPAS scores in English listening, speaking, and reading for more than 400,000 English learner students in 2020/21, the first full school year during the pandemic, and compared these students' TELPAS scores to those of students from 2018/19, the last full school year before the pandemic, who were similar on a range of demographic characteristics.2
We found that the differences between average English learner student English language proficiency before and during the pandemic varied by education level; high schoolers fared better than middle schoolers, who in turn fared better than elementary schoolers. High school English learner students in 2020/21 performed similarly on the TELPAS in listening and reading domains and higher in the speaking domain compared to similar students before the pandemic. Middle schoolers who took the TELPAS during the pandemic had lower scores on the listening section of the TELPAS than pre-pandemic English learner students, but similar speaking and reading scores.
During the first full year of instruction during the pandemic in Texas, many English learner students in elementary school—where the largest concentration of these students is served—did not make expected progress toward English proficiency. At the elementary level, English learner students who took the TELPAS during the pandemic had lower listening, speaking, and reading scores than those who took it before the pandemic (see figure). The largest differences were for speaking (with a score 0.29 standard deviations lower), followed by reading (at 0.17 standard deviations lower), and then listening (0.14 standard deviations lower).
There are many ways the Texas Education Agency can help elementary and middle school English learner students get back on track. In a typical year, that might mean investing available resources into elementary and middle schools or engaging English learner students in one-on-one and small-group learning opportunities. But the 2022/23 school year offers greater opportunities to advance students' English language learning:
Even if the pandemic had not occurred, English learner students in Texas would still benefit from supports like those outlined above to progress in English language proficiency. As of 2019/20, shortly before the pandemic, more than two-thirds of Texas students who had entered first grade as English learner students in 2014/15 had been receiving English language development services and supports for more than five years, and this proportion has been increasing over time (Cashiola & Potter, 2021). Receiving English language services for more than five years designates a student as a "long-term English learner student," which is associated with numerous negative academic outcomes, including lower test scores and lower on-time graduation rates (Olsen, 2010). Many students in Texas, including entering English learner students in kindergarten and long-term English learner students in middle and high school, stand to gain from committed, research-informed approaches to English language development and an equitable education for students from all language backgrounds.
2 The report demonstrates that the group of students who took the TELPAS during the pandemic and was included in our analyses was not meaningfully different from the group of students who took it before the pandemic. This finding allows us to rule out the hypothesis that the reason performance was different before and during the pandemic had not to do with differences in learning progress but in the types of students whom districts were able to assess.
3 These include Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) I, ESSER II, and American Rescue Plan ESSER funds.
Baker, S., Geva, E., Kiefer, M. J., Lesaux, N., Linan-Thompson, S., Morris, J., Proctor, C. P., Russell, R., Gersten, R., Dimino, J., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kiefer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014–4012). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED544783
Cashiola, L., & Potter, D. (2021). Increases in long-term English learners (LTELs) in Texas. Houston Education Research Consortium, Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED614658
Dawson, M. (2021). The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Academic Growth in 2020–2021. Curriculum Associates Research Report No. 19. https://www.curriculumassociates.com/-/media/mainsite/files/i-ready/iready-covid-growth-research-paper-2021.pdf
Dimino, J. A., Taylor, M., & Morris, J. (2015). Professional learning communities facilitator's guide for the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide: Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (REL 2015–105). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED558154
Garcia-Arena, P., & D'Souza, S. (2020). National survey of public education's response to COVID-19: Spotlight on English learner students. American Institutes for Research. https://www.air.org/sites/default/files/COVID-Survey-Spotlight-on-English-Learners-FINAL-Oct-2020.pdf
Kuhfeld, M., Soland, J., Tarasawa, B., Johnson, A., Ruzek, E., & Liu, J. (2020). Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement. Educational Researcher. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1272544
Olsen, L. (2010). Reparable harm: Fulfilling the unkept promise of educational opportunity for California's long term English learners. Californians Together.
Sahakyan, N. & Cook, H. G. (2021). Examining English Learner Testing, Proficiency, and Growth: Before and Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic. (WIDA Research Report No. RR-2021-1). Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2021). Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America's Students. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED619629
United States Government Accountability Office. (2020). Distance Learning: Challenges providing services to K-12 English learners and students with disabilities during COVID-19. GAO-21-43. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED609664
United States Government Accountability Office. (2022). Pandemic Learning: Teachers Reported Many Obstacles for High- Poverty Students and English Learners As Well As Some Mitigating Strategies. GAO-22-105815. https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-22-105815.pdf
For more information on supporting English learner students and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic: