By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
Headlines were bleak when results from the test known as the “Nation’s Report Card” came out last year.
Local newspapers around the country documented their districts’ declining scores. Editorials warned that US schools had failed students during the pandemic. Officials described the exam as an alarming wake-up call.
But one result on the National Assessment of Educational Progress hasn’t gotten much attention — a score that caught even some experts by surprise.
Yes, scores across many age groups, subjects and geographies declined as Covid-19 shook the US education system — a troubling indicator of how many children were still struggling to bounce back after months of remote learning.
But one group saw an unexpected improvement: English learners in 8th grade saw their scores increase on the reading comprehension portion of the 2022 exam.
The shift was so notable that months after results were released it still stuck out to Grady Wilburn, a statistician and research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics.
“This is a bright spot,” Wilburn said when presenting the data to reporters earlier this year as part of the National Press Foundation’s “Future of the American Child” fellowship.
In a round of testing where results were almost universally grim, the reading score from this group of 8th graders stands out.
“English learners improving their performance from 2019 is actually one of the only improvements that I can recall seeing in the results,” Wilburn said.
Why did this group show some progress when so many other students stagnated or slipped? And what lessons can be learned from this as educators, parents and policymakers chart paths forward for the nation’s children?
What the scores reveal
The 2022 results were the first from the “Nation’s Report Card” since the coronavirus pandemic sent millions of children home from school in 2020 and into remote learning environments many weren’t prepared to handle.
Officials stress that the exam provides a snapshot of student performance and isn’t designed to definitively explain why changes in scores occurred.
Still, it’s surprising to see one group with increasing scores when others’ scores trended in the opposite direction — especially when the group that’s gaining ground is often described as underachieving.
Roughly 1 in 10 students in US public schools are considered English learners — the Department of Education’s designation for students whose first language isn’t English, including both immigrants and US-born students. And the number is growing.
There are more than 5 million English learners in US public schools, according to the latest estimates, and some of the country’s largest school districts say that population makes up at least 20% of their students.
Experts had warned that English learners were at risk of falling far behind as the pandemic put most students in front of screens instead of in classrooms. And recent research shows those concerns were well founded.
But the 2022 results from the “Nation’s Report Card” paint a more complicated picture.
English learners in 8th grade saw their average scores on the reading portion of the exam climb by four points.
That increase may not sound like much, and English learners’ scores were still well below those of their peers who were not English learners. But Wilburn told reporters that the change is worth exploring.
“This is an area that I would encourage others to dig into,” he said.
A spokesman for the Department of Education said in a recent statement to CNN that the bigger picture of the exam also is important to keep in mind.
“Seeing an increase in achievement for English Learners in 8th grade reading since 2019 is notable and demonstrates a resiliency throughout the COVID pandemic,” spokesman Roy Loewenstein said in a written statement. “However, overall, the National Assessment of Educational Progress results are a stark reminder of the impact that this pandemic has had on students across the country.”
So why would 8th-grade English learners see their reading scores improve? CNN asked national and local experts what they think could be behind this unexpected result.
Here are their theories:
Theory: Some high-performing students were deemed English learners longer than they normally would be
Some students who normally would have tested out of “English learner” status as their language skills improved didn’t during the pandemic, because less testing was conducted to change students’ placement during periods of remote learning.
“We know that many states had very limited assessment in 2020, or 2021 in some places. … That likely led to more students remaining in that (English learner) category,” says Karen Thompson, an associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Education.
And that, Thompson says, could be one reason why 8th grade English learners’ reading scores were higher on this national exam, because higher-performing students were still included in the group.
That possibility relates to a “hidden” trend Thompson and other researchers have been pointing to for years: English learners actually end up doing much better in school than we think. But we don’t usually see that in test results because those former English learners are merged into the general student population.
A Boston Globe report last year noted that former English learners excelled on state standardized tests, and nearly half the valedictorians in that city’s public schools were former English learners.
Theory: Many districts are embracing new teaching strategies
Several experts and school district officials who spoke with CNN about the NAEP results pointed to changing norms in how English learners are taught. They touted a growing emphasis on bilingual education (instructing students both in English and their native language) and programs designed to see the value in students who come to school knowing another language.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, where 8th grade English learners’ reading scores jumped by 12 points from 2019 to 2022, school officials say they believe there’s a clear correlation between the rising scores and the district’s education philosophies.
“We don’t look at learning a second language as a deficit,” Albuquerque Public Schools Associate Superintendent Antonio Gonzales says. “We celebrate it.”
The district offers bilingual seals on students’ transcripts signifying proficiency in two languages, and a growing number of students have received that recognition in recent years, says Richard Cisneros, the district’s interim senior director for language and cultural equity. Another factor that officials believe has helped English learners improve, Cisneros says, is a shift to using new culturally relevant textbooks that “students can see themselves in.”
Marcey Sorensen, chief academic officer of the Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas, says it’s possible the increasing scores of 8th grade English learners in her district, whose reading scores also climbed 12 points, were a result of recent efforts to overhaul the curriculum and change the way English learners there are taught.
When the district shifted to remote learning during the pandemic, she says, that put many students in home environments where they weren’t speaking English. But when students returned to the classroom in late 2020, Sorensen says, teachers intensified efforts to immerse English learners in bilingual language learning.
“We were ready to hit the ground with new materials, new strategies, new supports for tutoring and extended learning opportunities and new professional development for teachers,” she says. “We put a very strong emphasis on the listening, speaking, reading and writing every single day that they weren’t getting during the pandemic.”
And the improvements were dramatic, Sorensen says.
“It’s kind of like a desert, when you’re dry for six months, and then you get this infusion of bilingualism,” she says. “It’s like drinking from a firehose. You’re absorbing so fast.”
And as a result, Sorensen says bilingual students saw greater gains over the same time period than peers who spoke only one language.
Theory: In some districts, the results are part of a longer-term trend
There’s no doubt that the pandemic had a significant impact on schools and students. But some of the districts that saw jumps in this group’s performance had been observing score increases for years. And that’s an important point to consider, says Jorge Macias, chief of language and cultural education at Chicago Public Schools.
“It’s not a one-year wonder kind of thing,” he says, noting that English learners’ scores in his district have been climbing for more than a decade.
“I’m not surprised by the results. I think people are like, ‘Oh, you know, it’s an outlier.’ No, it’s not. You can see by the chart we’ve been improving, and we will continue to improve,” he says.
What’s been the secret to boosting scores there? Macias says years of improved teacher training has a lot to do with it.
“It was a cultural shift. It was a shift in getting more teachers, endorsed teachers in front of students,” he says.
Other efforts also played a role, Macias says, including increased tutoring options for English learners.
Theory: English learners weren’t taken out of classes as frequently
There’s also another theory some advocates have floated, according to Wilburn at the National Center for Education Statistics.
According to this hypothesis, the higher scores may have been an unintended consequence of pandemic teacher shortages. Due to staffing issues, English learners in some districts who normally would have been pulled out of classes for specialized instruction were left alongside their more fluent peers.
“What was happening previous to 2020 is that English learners would be in class, they would be removed from a class, whether it’d be reading or math, to have some special one-on-one focused English learner type of intervention. Given a lot of the shortages that schools were experiencing after Covid, that was happening less often,” Wilburn said during his January presentation.
And advocates who have long pushed for keeping English learners in the classroom rather than pulling them out are pointing to these test results as they continue to make their case.
Some experts caution against drawing conclusions from one year’s results
Experts who spoke with CNN say it’s impossible to pinpoint any one cause behind the changing scores, and that more research is needed.
“We need a lot more exploration to think about whether these kinds of hypotheses might be part of what’s happening, or if we shouldn’t dig too far into this because maybe it’s an anomaly,” Thompson says.
Julie Sugarman, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, says NAEP test scores don’t provide enough information to draw major conclusions.
“To make a grand statement about American education just on the basis of that test score, I don’t think that’s an appropriate use of that,” Sugarman says.
Asked about 8th grade English learners’ improving reading scores, Sugarman said the fact that the same students’ math scores didn’t increase gives her pause, as does the idea of extrapolating too much meaning from one year of results.
“If it’s just one year and it bounces up and down, it’s not a trend,” she says. “If it jumps up, or if it does that for two or three years in a row, that’s something that we want to look at. I wouldn’t say this is something that’s particularly real.”
Asked last year about the 8th grade English learners’ improvement, another longtime researcher also pointed out that test results often fluctuate from year to year.
“A lot of people who cheer the NAEP one year are downtrodden the next,” Tom Loveless told the education news site The 74.
It won’t be long before researchers analyzing the “Nation’s Report Card” will have new results to consider. Another round of exams will take place next year, and results from the 2022 US history and civics tests are scheduled to be released later this week.
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