24% of Schools' English-Learners Test Fluent

Education: Advocates credit immersion classes, but educators say exam's first year means little

Nearly a quarter of California public school students who are learning English scored high enough on a new test to be deemed fluent.

However, in releasing the test results Tuesday, education officials cautioned against reclassifying students as fluent too quickly, lest they struggle academically.

Of about 1.6 million students who took the California English Language Development Test last year, 24% scored in the advanced or early advanced categories–high enough to be considered fluent. The districts, however, make the final determination of whether a student should be reclassified as English-proficient. The test was designed to measure whether post-bilingual education efforts are helping students learn English better. The lack of English skills is a major factor in low standardized test scores for many California schoolchildren.

For example, the results show that students who have remained in bilingual education programs– which require parental waivers–performed worse than those in English immersion programs.

Students in immersion programs were nearly three times as likely to score in the advanced or early advanced categories as students in bilingual programs. But education officials said it is too early to compare the programs because the scores do not show how long students had been in each program before taking the test.

Because this was the first year of the test, it provided limited information about how fast students are acquiring English skills. The scores will serve as a baseline for future years.

“It will allow us to see if our programs are improving or getting worse, and it will allow us to learn from each other,” said Robert Fraisse, superintendent of the Hueneme Elementary School District in Ventura County.

Ron Unz, author of Proposition 227, which curtailed bilingual education in the state, said the numbers show that schools are penalizing students by holding them back in English-learner programs or bilingual classes when they should be promoted into regular classes.

Only 9% of English learners graduate to mainstream settings each year–far lower than the 24% who scored high enough to do so.

“That’s a very high margin of error,” said Unz, who now heads English for the Children, a Palo Alto- based group that promotes English immersion education. “It raises very serious doubts about the entire methodology of classifying students.”

State and local education officials said that the test measures English proficiency but should not be construed as the sole indicator of how those learning English will perform in regular classrooms. Districts also consider grades and scores from other standardized tests.

“Just getting scores in early advanced or advanced doesn’t mean they are prepared for mainstream education,” said Howard Bryan, director of English language development and bilingual programs at the Santa Ana Unified School District.

Moreover, Bryan said, most students learning English already attend mainstream classes with extra help.

Of the 42,000 Santa Ana students tested last year, 17% scored advanced or early advanced. About 7% are reclassified every year as English-fluent, Bryan said.

Most district officials said they expected some discrepancy between the new test results and the rate they reclassify students, but some acknowledged that they will reevaluate their programs.

At Simi Valley Unified School District in Ventura County, 38% of students are eligible to move out of English development programs, according to the new test results. But the district reclassifies far fewer students, said Bob Rizzardi, the district’s testing coordinator.

“I don’t think we’re holding kids back unnecessarily,” he said. “But that’s an awfully high number.”

The exam tests abilities in listening, speaking, reading and writing English. Districts administered the test last year for the first time amid complaints that the test was too time-consuming and cumbersome.

Earlier this year, the state Board of Education eased some of the burden by not requiring the listening and speaking portions of the test every year from students who pass them the first time.

The test eventually will count as an accountability measure for the districts, said state Supt. of Education Delaine Eastin, but because many students move from district to district, the state must first create a student tracking system. Otherwise, districts with a high influx of students who are not fluent in English might be unfairly penalized because most of their students would perennially score lower in the test.

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