As most K–12 campuses are closed, schools are struggling to find ways to support English learners’ linguistic and academic development, and to meet their legal obligations to these students. To that end, last month, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance on how schools should serve English learners (ELs) during the pandemic.

The Devil’s in the Details

The released guidance covers the major elements of those legal obligations. For instance, federal law requires schools to screen students to determine which are ELs—children whose English skills are still emerging and warrant additional instructional supports. This screening process generally involves surveying families to see which languages they speak at home and subsequently testing the English abilities of students whose families speak non-English languages. Students who score below their state’s definition of English proficiency are classified as English learners and receive additional resources and language learning services until they demonstrate proficiency.

The system was sensible enough before the pandemic, but large portions of it are difficult, even impossible, to fairly implement while schools are closed and limited to distance-learning models. This new federal guidance aims at clarifying what local and state education leaders can do to continue identifying and supporting ELs during the public health crisis.

By and large, the recommendations contained in the new guidance are on target. If schools cannot administer English language screeners in person, for instance, the guidance suggests that states and districts consider allowing them to survey parents and test students online. If schools cannot currently test to see if EL students have reached English proficiency this spring because of closures, it recommends (1) using other achievement data to gauge each ELs’ progress and (2) administering the English language proficiency assessments when schools reopen.

These recommendations are reasonable. After all, what else are schools to do while they cannot meet with students in person?

Where the Guidance Is More Nuanced Than the Law

There is one passage in the guidance that hints at an insight that’s missing from most federal EL policies. “Some ELs’ English proficiency may have decreased since they were assessed because they may have experienced limited instruction for an extended time during the school closures,” the document reads. “Therefore, schools should closely monitor ELs, including those
students who have been exited from EL status.”

This sounds sensible—even anodyne—but in fact that last portion is at odds with the sharp distinction that most EL policies currently impose between current ELs and former EL students. The passage quoted above—and the guidance in general—recognizes that a student who scores just above proficient on their state’s language assessment likely needs many of the same supports as a student who scores just below proficient. By contrast, most federal and state EL education policies are designed to support ELs only until they score proficient in English. Once they do, these students are “reclassified” as former English learners and are generally treated as though they were never ELs.

This is a mistake, since language mastery is too messy and complex a concept to be reduced to a simple binary of proficient/not proficient. Consider, for instance, the difference between social and academic proficiency in English; that is, the language skills and knowledge students need to navigate school social life are different than the skills and knowledge they need to participate fully in academic work. While there is certainly some overlap between the two, they are still different proficiencies for different purposes and settings.

States’ academic language proficiency assessments attempt to capture a student’s academic language proficiency in both oral and written English. However, as noted in a 2017 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report, these tests cannot possibly capture the full range of academic language in use across multiple subjects and grades. Even a student who scores “proficient” in English may still benefit from additional language services in particular subjects or on particular tasks.

To be fair, federal law does require states to monitor the progress of former ELs for several years to ensure that they are succeeding without language support services. But as a practical matter, that requirement is not identically enforced in all districts or states, perhaps because federal and state EL funding generally provides few resources for services for former ELs. In some states, the monitoring period for former ELs amounts to schools simply keeping track of these students’ performance on academic assessments. In others, schools also provide ongoing language learning services.

That latter approach—scaffolding down ELs’ language supports incrementally after they reach proficiency—better reflects the reality of language learning. No one—ELs in U.S. schools or college students studying abroad in Paris—ever moves from “learning a language” to “proficiency in a language” permanently, or in a single moment.

The guidance’s acknowledgement that ELs’ language proficiencies are likely to fluctuate over time—and may drop while schools are closed—is a good starting point for changing that model. First, federal EL funding under Title III of the Every Student Succeeds Act should be increased. Second, Title III funding should be expanded in scope to allow schools and school districts to use these dollars to support former ELs’ progress for longer—even after they officially test as proficient in English. This would make it easier for schools to provide a gradually decreasing continuum of language learning supports for students who reach proficiency.

As a consequence of the pandemic, many EL students may return to campus having lost some of the progress they were making toward English language proficiency. And yet, this also happens under more normal circumstances—students face the possibility of summer learning loss at the end of each academic year. Why not update federal EL policies to reflect that?