Last year, headlines were bleak as results of the test called the "Nation's Report Card" came out.
Local newspapers across the country reported on their district's declining scores. Editorials warned US schools failed their students during the pandemic. Officials called the exam an alarming wake up call.
One result of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) hasn't received much attention. It was a score which even surprised some experts.
Covid-19 has shaken the US education system, and scores have fallen across age groups, subject areas, and geographical regions. This is a worrying indicator that many children are still struggling to recover after months of distance learning.
One group, however, saw an unexpected improvement in their reading comprehension scores on the 2022 exam: English students in 8th grade.
Grady Wilburn is a research scientist and statistician at the National Center for Education Statistics. He noticed that even months after the results were published, there was still a noticeable shift.
Wilburn told reporters that the data was a 'bright spot' when he presented it to them earlier this year, as part of the National Press Foundation fellowship 'Future of the American Child.'
This group of eighth graders' reading score stands out in a testing round where the results were nearly universally poor.
This is an encouraging sign. This is one of the few improvements in results that I can remember.
Grady Wilburn, National Center for Education Statistics
Wilburn stated that 'the improvement in English learners' performance since 2019 is one of the few improvements I can remember seeing.
Why did some students make progress while others stagnated or fell behind? What can we learn from this group as educators, policymakers and parents chart a path forward for our nation's youth?
What the Scores Reveal
The results for 2022 were the first 'Nation's Report Card' to be released since the pandemic of coronavirus in 2020 sent millions of students home from school and into remote learning environments they weren't ready to handle.
Officials emphasize that the test is not designed to explain definitively why scores changed.
It's still surprising to see a group with increasing scores while others have scores that are trending in the opposite directions - particularly when the group gaining ground has been described as being underachieving.
English learners are roughly 1/10 of students in US public school. This includes both US-born and immigrants. The number of English learners is increasing.
According to the most recent estimates, there are at least 5 million English-language learners in US schools. Some of the largest districts report that this population represents more than 20% of their student body.
Experts warned that English-speaking students were at risk of slipping behind, as the pandemic forced most students to spend more time in front of screens than in classrooms. Recent research shows that these concerns were well-founded.
The 'Nation's Report Card' results for 2022 paint a much more complex picture.
The average score of 8th-grade English students on the reading section of the test increased by four points.
The increase in scores may not seem like much and English learners still scored below their peers who did not speak English. Wilburn told reporters the change was worth investigating.
He said: 'This is a field that I encourage others to explore.'
In a recent CNN statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Education stated that it is also important to consider the larger picture of the test.
In a written statement, Roy Loewenstein stated that'seeing an increase in English Learner's achievement in 8th grade Reading since 2019 is noteworthy and shows a resilience throughout the COVID Pandemic'. Overall, however, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results are a stark example of the impact this pandemic had on students in the United States.
Why would English students in 8th grade see an improvement in their reading scores? CNN asked local and national experts to explain this surprising result.
Here are some of their theories.
Theorem: Some high-performing learners were classified as English learners for longer than normal.
The pandemic affected some students who would normally have been able to test out of the 'English Learner' category as their language skills improve, but this didn't happen because there was less testing done during remote learning periods.
We know that in many places, the assessment was very limited in 2020 or 2021. This likely resulted in more students staying in the category of English learners, says Karen Thompson, associate professor of Oregon State University College of Education.
Thompson believes that this could be a reason for the higher reading scores of 8th grade English language learners on this national test, as higher-performing students still remained in the group.
This possibility is related to a hidden' trend Thompson, and other researchers, have been pointing out for years. English learners end up performing much better at school than we thought. We don't see this in the test results, because these former English learners have been merged with the rest of the student population.
In a Boston Globe article published last year, it was noted that former English-language learners performed well on state standardized exams and that nearly half of the valedictorians at public schools in Boston were former English-language learners.
Many districts are adopting new teaching strategies
Experts and officials from school districts who spoke to CNN about NAEP results noted a shift in the way English learners are educated. The experts cited a growing focus on bilingual education, which involves teaching students in both English and their native languages. They also praised programs that recognize the value of students who arrive at school with a second language.
School officials in Albuquerque say that the rise of the reading scores for 8th grade English language learners from 2019 to 2020 is a direct result of the district's educational philosophy.
Antonio Gonzales, Associate Superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools, says: "We don't view learning a second-language as a deficiency." We celebrate it.
Richard Cisneros is the district's interim director of language and cultural equity. He says that a growing number students are receiving bilingual seals in their transcripts to signify proficiency in two different languages. Cisneros believes that the use of new, culturally-relevant textbooks, which'students could identify with', has also helped English learners to improve.
Marcey Sorensen is the chief academic officer for the Fort Worth Independent Schools District in Texas. She says that recent efforts to revamp the curriculum and change how English learners are taught may have contributed to the rising scores of 8th-grade English learners. Their reading scores rose 12 points.
She says that when the district switched to remote learning during pandemic, many students were placed in homes where they didn't speak English. Sorensen claims that when the students returned to school in late 2020, teachers increased their efforts to help English language learners learn bilingually.
She says, 'We were prepared to get started with new materials, strategies, and support for tutoring, extended learning, and new professional development opportunities for teachers.' We put an emphasis on listening, speaking and reading every day, which they didn't get during the pandemic.
Sorensen claims that the changes were dramatic.
She says, 'It is like being dry for six month and then getting this infusion. It's like drinking water from a firehose. You're absorbing so fast.'
Sorensen claims that bilingual students made greater gains in the same period of time than their peers who only spoke one language.
Theoretical explanation: Some districts' results follow a long-term trend
It's clear that the pandemic affected schools and students in a major way. Some districts had seen scores increase for years before they saw a jump in performance. This is an important factor to take into consideration, according to Jorge Macias of Chicago Public Schools, who oversees language and cultural education.
He says that the English learner's scores in his district are on the rise for over a decade.
I'm not shocked by the results. The chart shows that we have been improving and will continue to do so,' says he.
What was the secret behind improving scores? Macias believes that years of better teacher training have a big part to play.
It was a shift in culture. He says it was a cultural shift to get more teachers and endorsed teachers in the front of students.
Macias also says that other efforts played a part, such as increased tutoring for English learners.
Theorem: English language learners were not taken out of class as often
Wilburn, from the National Center for Education Statistics, says that there's another theory that some supporters have floated.
This hypothesis suggests that the higher scores could have been a result of the pandemic shortage of teachers. Staffing problems meant that English learners who would normally have been removed from classes to receive specialized instruction, were instead left in the same classroom as their more fluent classmates.
Before 2020, English learners were removed from class to receive a one-on-one English Learner focused intervention. Wilburn stated that this was less common after Covid because of the shortages schools experienced.
These test results are used by advocates to continue their argument that English learners should remain in the classroom.
Experts warn against making conclusions based on a single year's performance
CNN spoke to experts who said that it is impossible to pinpoint a single cause for the changes in scores and that further research is required.
Thompson says: 'We should do more research to see if these hypotheses are part of the story, or if it is an anomaly.
Julie Sugarman is a senior analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. She says that NAEP test results don't give enough information to make major conclusions.
Sugarman says, 'I don't believe that is an appropriate way to use that score.'
Sugarman, when asked about the 8th grade English learner's improving reading scores said that the fact the same students' mathematics scores did not increase gave her pause. She also questioned the idea of extrapolating to much meaning from a year's results.
She says that if it is just for one year, and the trend bounces back and forth, then it's not really a trend. If it continues to do this for more than two years, we will be looking at it. I wouldn't call this something real.
Another long-time researcher, when asked last year about the improvement of 8th grade English language learners, also noted that test results fluctuate year to year.
Tom Loveless, a reporter for the education news website The 74, said: 'A number of people who cheered the NAEP the first year become downtrodden by the second.'
Researchers will soon have updated results to take into account when analyzing the "Nation's Report Card". The results of the 2022 US History and Civics test will be released this week.