SANTA CLARA COUNTY’S English learner students, part of the largest group in the nation, saw mixed progress during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Santa Clara County school districts with the largest populations of English learners, data reviewed by San José Spotlight showed three districts had a drop in test scores while the others saw an increase. The state average also increased by about 2 percent, and four out of the seven districts analyzed surpassed the state average in the 2021-22 school year.

More than one million English learners were enrolled in the state’s public schools last year, according to the California Department of Education. English learner progress is marked by annual state test scores. The California State Dashboard measures how many students increased, maintained or decreased language skill levels, and those test scores varied, according to recent data. Advocates said this lack of consistency demonstrates that English learner students need more resources and support.

Allison Briceño, a San Jose State University associate professor in bilingual education, said post-pandemic practices in English language development need to acknowledge that multilingualism has a place in classrooms.

“How are we responding to the fact that our English learners might need some support? Are we providing the resources, or are we continuing practices that we know don’t work?” Briceño told San José Spotlight. “We need to be thoughtful and intentional about what we do now.”

Alum Rock Union Elementary School District Superintendent Hilaria Bauer said English learner progress starts with integrating language development across school subjects. The district, which serves more than 2,000 English language learners out of more than 10,000 students, saw an increase in state test scores despite drops in reading, writing and math scores that disproportionately impacted low-income students.

“English language acquisition happens during mathematics, social studies, science, reading,” Bauer told San José Spotlight. “We are committed to our students increasing English language development throughout the day … That very robust approach is what might be the magic sauce for Alum Rock.”

Bauer said the district also regularly trains teachers in English language development, and students who need additional help with English get extra instruction in small groups during or after school.

Briceño said the drop in progress across English language development programs in some districts reflects the impact of the pandemic. The region’s ongoing displacement of families could impact enrollment numbers in districts’ English learner programs and skew results among students, Briceño said.

“Language development is not linear, so these kids aren’t regressing. They just need to refresh their English (skills) and then continue to advance.”

Allison Briceño, San Jose State University professor

San Jose Unified School District, Santa Clara Unified School District and East Side Union High School District all saw drops in state scores and English learner student enrollment, data shows.

“Language is the foundation for learning and also being able to show what you’ve learned,” Briceño told San José Spotlight. “Language development is not linear, so these kids aren’t regressing. They just need to refresh their English (skills) and then continue to advance.”

While some students were able to practice their language skills attending in-person instruction, Briceño said, other students had to adjust during distance learning. But it’s not all bad, as students were able to progress in other languages while online, she added.

“One of the things we’re not thinking about is the growth that these kids made in their home language,” Briceño told San José Spotlight. “While that doesn’t show up on the test, it really does help: a home language proficiency is correlated to success in English.”

Bauer said marking English learner progress goes beyond test scores, and the district focused on making sure students were reclassified if they acquired proficient English skills. Accelerating English language learners is crucial. The progress elementary school students make in English determines what courses they’re able to take in middle and high schools, which could impact access to college, she added.

“We really want to make sure that they have an opportunity once they get into the high schools,” Bauer told San José Spotlight.

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at loan-anh@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.

Loan-Anh Pham | San Jose Spotlight

San Jose Spotlight