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Thursday March 23rd

CHCCS English language learners' test scores drop 30.3 percent from pre-pandemic years

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools students scored lower on state assessments across the board in the 2020-21 school year, according to recently released data. 

Last year, only 61.8 percent of students who tested were proficient on their end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments. That is down 13.7 percent from the 2018-19 school year, when 75.5 percent of students met the statewide proficiency standards.

“We know we have some pretty large, glaring gaps,” CHCCS Superintendent Nyah Hamlett said. “Our children don't have time for us to pat ourselves on the back.”

CHCCS shifted to online classes due to COVID-19 in March 2020. Since then, students have gone through phases of remote and hybrid learning. 

Diane Villwock, executive director of assessment and research at CHCCS, said it has been difficult to replicate the learning environment students were used to prior to the pandemic. 

“If you look at a typical school year and how much instruction occurs face to face with students interacting with one another and curriculum materials and the teacher, we couldn't get close to that last year,” Villwock said. 

Due to the pandemic, school administrators changed the way tests were taken. Villwock said students had to take tests in person and follow COVID-19 safety procedures, such as mask-wearing, social distancing and temperature checks.

The state and federal governments waived the normal accountability requirements associated with standardized testing that are used to measure and evaluate school performance.

In a typical year, school districts must test at least 95 percent of their students, but only 75 percent of CHCCS students were tested last year. 

Villwock said the data, while useful, cannot be completely relied upon to make decisions going forward. She said using the last available data before COVID-19 in conjunction with this recent info would provide a more complete view of the situation. 

“We don’t know what caused all the changes, and we didn't test all the children,” she said. “So when we compare this to '18-'19, and we know the instruction was different, we've got to be really careful to not lean too hard on that comparison. It's not apples to apples.”

English language learners

English language learners experienced one of the most dramatic decreases in scores. Their scores dropped from 43.8 percent meeting English proficiency standards in 2018-19 to 37.4 percent in 2019-20.

For the 2020-21 school year, 13.5 percent of English language learners met English proficiency standards. 

The tests that English language learners take are WIDA ACCESS Tests. These assessments are divided into four parts: listening, speaking, writing and reading. They are scored individually, weighted and combined into composite scores. 

This structure may have contributed to the lower scores, as some students were unable to finish all sections in time, said Helen Atkins, the CHCCS program coordinator for English language learners. Students were only provided one day for testing, while it normally would have been over two days, she said.  

“If you miss one domain — if you have a child that maybe takes three parts and doesn’t take the fourth part — we don't get the composite score,” Atkins said. “If you don't get the composite score, that child isn't counted as making progress.”

Atkins said the WIDA assessments are designed to use more academic language, and the content on them is similar to other standardized tests.

Gina Bacheler, the lead teacher for English language learners at CHCCS, said students were exposed to more language — in the classroom and in social settings — before classes moved online.

“Linguists have proven that a student will learn their social language first and their academic language comes next,” Bacheler said. “This is a test that shows how they would do in an academic setting, not on the playground.”

Over the past year, the CHCCS English language learners department implemented new programs, including webinars, Facebook livestreams and translation services to help reach students and families despite the constraints of the pandemic.

“Even though the test scores haven't really shown the growth, I feel like just the capacity of the families and their willingness to come in and the growth in the relationships between our office and our families has grown tremendously,” Bacheler said. “We really, really, really have hope that growth in our relationship will transfer into the classroom.”

Hamlett said the district's mindset is not to return to its pre-pandemic test scores, but to exceed them. 

“I know that that’s a huge feat and that’s a pretty tall task before us," Hamlett said. "But our students and our children and families don't have time for us to wait."

A more comprehensive report about CHCCS test scores will be made available to the Board of Education on Nov. 4, Villwock said in an email.


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