The COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruptions to student learning, as well as statewide assessments. Students have faced barriers to learning and engaging in schools, which has resulted in decreased rates of enrollment and absenteeism as well as failing grades. Even as states resumed assessments in the 2020-21 school year, the impact of the pandemic on student achievement has not been fully measured. While it’s impossible to come to definitive conclusions, there are strong indications from both testing and non-testing data that the nation’s 5 million English learners have been among the most disproportionately affected groups of students.

A report from the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy finds widening achievement gaps — with a decline in EL student performance in English Language Arts (ELA). Contrasting 2020–21 assessment performance with student performance prior to the onset of the pandemic, there are marked declines in performance for all students, and remote learners fared worse. Data also shows that the percentage of English learners in Florida in grades 3–10 who performed at a satisfactory level or above declined to levels not seen since before the pandemic. This data corroborates larger narratives around widening achievement gaps for all secondary grade students.

Another example of declining achievement data comes from Indiana. All student demographics experienced significant impacts in math, but English learners — together with Asian, Black, and Latino students and students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch — experienced significant impacts in both ELA and math. State officials defined “significant impacts” as those from which students would need more than one year to recover, new language that reflects the severity of COVID-19’s impact on the nation’s students.

In addition to low passing rates in ELA and math, state tests also point to dire setbacks in English language development. EL performance in English Language Proficiency (ELP) assessments were lower during pandemic than in previous years, especially in grades 1–6 (see Figure 1). Between the 2019–20 and 2020–21 school years, proficiency fell six overall composite scale points in grades 1–5 and four composite scale score points in grade 6, among students participating in the ACCESS test.

These declines in academic and ELP assessment data highlight the pandemic’s negative effect on EL students. Additionally, school data derived from sources other than tests provide further evidence of these trends. Over the course of the 2020–21 academic year, there were signs that disrupted learning was taking a disproportionate toll on English learners, students of color, and certain other student groups. Chronic absenteeism, declines in enrollment, and failing grades have all pointed to potentially depressed learning outcomes among English learners. What’s more, English learners are more likely to have parents whose jobs were affected by the pandemic, are unsure how to navigate changing administrative schedules, and are already in need of the most instruction to bridge existing learning gaps.

For these reasons and more, state policymakers and school leaders need to direct federal relief dollars under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) and other resources that invest in interventions that are appropriate for English learners. Some proven strategies for doing so include:

  • Targeted, intensive tutoring and acceleration initiatives that are staffed with teachers and paraprofessionals who are trained to work with English learners
  • Sustained and content-focused professional development for all teachers to support English learners 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

There is also a pressing need to ensure assessment data is transparent, accessible, and is being used to allocate additional resources and support to EL students that are aligned with their needs. To ensure equity for English learners, assessment policy conversations would benefit from deeper consideration and research on several issues relevant to English learners, including:

  • How data from other sources (e.g., opportunity to learn data) is considered alongside assessment data
  • What schools should consider “normal” and “ambitious” growth in students’ language and academic development, given the pandemic’s disruptions to student learning trajectories
  • How to boost data transparency and reporting to support and inform equity efforts

All in all, statewide assessment data and non-academic data has long provided educators and policymakers with a way to understand the academic progress of students, allowing for the better allocation of resources and setting high expectations for students. As school districts continue to make use of crucial federal funding, it will be important to evaluate whether school districts are using ARP dollars to ensure English learners have the supports they need.

Jazmin Flores Peña is a research assistant at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy.