Results are in from the first round of tests taken by students
since California largely ended bilingual education in June 1998,
and they are good–and that is a major event in education
politics and policy.
Scores released last week for this year’s Stanford 9 test
in California were up in all grades and all subjects for English
speakers and also for students new to English. Californians are
now engaged in a vigorous debate about the reason for this
improvement–Proposition 227’s mandated end to bilingual
education or a host of other school reforms implemented in the
past few years. But at least the scores did not go down, as some
pro-bilingualists had predicted. This probably means a big boost
for efforts to roll back bilingual education in other states, as
well as nationally.
The gains in California have certainly heartened Maria
Mendoza, 62, a Tucson woman who has been trying for three decades
to end bilingual education in neighboring Arizona. Mendoza hopes
to get a measure like California’s Proposition 227 on the Arizona
ballot for 2000.
“I think this will be my last year, because I think we
will win,” said Mendoza, who heads her state’s “English for the
Children” campaign, modeled after Proposition 227. “We will use
those results to say, ‘Proposition 227 in California worked.’ ”
Mendoza launched her one-woman campaign in 1968, when, as
a parent, she went to a fourth-grade bilingual classroom and was
shocked to find students who couldn’t read English. In 1974, she
sued the Tucson Unified School District, asserting that students
in bilingual classes were being discriminated against by not
being taught English. The suit led to a statute requiring the
district to give parents a choice about placing their children in
bilingual classes. Not enough, says Mendoza; all Arizona school
districts should ban bilingual education.
Mendoza had almost given up any hope of success. Then,
last year, Proposition 227 passed in California. So she called
Ron K. Unz, the wealthy California entrepreneur who spearheaded
the 227 effort. She also contacted several Arizona state
legislators, and held a forum to spread the English-only gospel.
Mendoza hoped the California test scores would give her more
ammunition in her push toward 2000. Now, she feels that her wish
has been granted. “Right away you can tell these children are
scoring way above [last year’s scores],” she said. “If they did
not understand the English instruction, their test scores would
have been worse.”
Even bilingual proponents fear that test gains in
California, particularly among children who are not native
English speakers, will fuel anti-bilingual pressures around the
country, especially in Colorado, New York, and Massachusetts, and
in cities such as Houston, all of which have growing Hispanic
populations. “There’s going to be, and there already is . . . a
temptation to say, ‘Look at California,’ ” said Jaime A. Zapata,
a spokesman for the National Association for Bilingual Education,
Recent polls point to strong public sentiment in favor of
English-only education. Last year Unz commissioned the polling
firm Zogby International, of Utica, N.Y., to take the country’s
pulse on the issue of bilingual education and found that a
Proposition 227-like law would win nationally, 77 percent to 19
percent. Pollsters at Arizona Opinion in Tucson found support
among 72 percent of voters in that state.
But, in truth, it is hard to draw too many absolute
conclusions from California’s new scores on the Stanford 9 test,
which is given, in English, to students in grades 2 to 11. In
this, the second year that students statewide have taken the
test, average reading scores are up from a 39.6 percentile last
year to a 42.2 percentile this year for students in grades 2 to
6. For children not fluent in English, the scores are up from a
15.6 percentile to an 18.4 percentile. A score of 50 is the
national mean out of a maximum of 99 points.
California’s top school official, Superintendent of
Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, said that Proposition 227
could not be called an “off-the-charts winner” because children
who speak English at home, as well as those who don’t, both
posted similar point gains. Students with limited English
proficiency improved their reading scores by 2.8 percentile
points, on average, whereas scores for all students jumped 2.6
She also noted that in the past couple of years,
California had instituted a variety of other school reforms that
may have helped boost scores, including smaller class size and
greater use of phonics.
Proponents of bilingual education say it is impossible to
know so soon what caused the rise. Some attribute it to the
likelihood that students have gotten used to the annual test.
According to researchers, students given a new test often improve
in the first few years as they become accustomed to it.
Unz, however, sees success in the scores. He says a
three- or four-point gain in percentile terms may not seem like
much to students doing well, but to non-English- speaking
students in lower grades who last year may have scored in the
15th percentile, a jump to the 18th or 20th percentile means a 20
percent or 30 percent improvement. Viewed from that standpoint,
students with little English proficiency improved, on average, by
18 percent across the state, whereas all students showed only a 7
percent improvement, Unz said.
And, he added, the point is that the pro-bilingual folks
predicted doom and gloom, and it did not happen. “They claimed
scores would plummet [after 227]; instead immigrant test scores
are up 20 percent from last year,” Unz said. “If test scores
had gone down 20 percent, they would have said, ‘That’s proof 227
was a disaster.’ ” Unz also noted that not all schools fully
implemented the proposition last year, and many districts and
parents chose to exercise waivers, which kept students in
bilingual classes this year. In districts that embraced 227
wholeheartedly, however, the test-score improvements were more
dramatic, he said.
In Oceanside, for example, a community north of San Diego
that completely ended bilingual classes, students who don’t speak
English at home gained 43 percent in reading scores, climbing
from an 8.8 percentile to a 12.6 percentile, compared with all
students in the district, whose scores rose 16 percent in
reading, from an average percentile score of 35.4 to 41. Unz
contrasts these gains with those of the San Jose Unified School
District, which retained bilingual classes. In San Jose,
percentile scores rose from 43.0 to 44.4 for all students, and
from 15.0 to 15.6 for non-English speakers, gains of only 3
percent and 4 percent, respectively.
Joseph Farley, the principal at Mission Elementary School
in Oceanside last year and now a district-level administrator,
did an about-face on 227 when the scores came in. Farley, who
supported bilingual education for 20 years, worried that his
students, half of whom had limited English and 80 percent of whom
were from low-income households, would drown when immersed in
English. Instead of sinking, the students learned to swim. At
Mission Elementary, children with limited English improved 111
percent in reading, from a 7.0 percentile to a 14.8 percentile,
compared with a 66 percent increase among all children, from a
15.2 percentile to a 25.2 percentile.
Children at Mission who spoke no English last fall left
in June speaking English to one another on the playground, Farley
said. “The obvious interpretation is that the children are
learning English more rapidly” in an English-only environment,
Testimonials such as Farley’s, perhaps more than the
scores themselves, can bolster the case against bilingualism in
other states. But pro-bilingual forces will not be standing
Taking a page from abortion-rights groups, pro-bilingual
groups may begin framing the issue as one of choice. “The most
important message is that this proposition is removing parental
options,” said Alejandra Sotomayor, a middle-school curriculum
specialist for Tucson Unified and president of the Tucson
Association for Bilingual Education. Sotomayor promises to launch
a large education campaign in Arizona to counter whatever Maria
Mendoza and her anti-bilingual camp can organize. And choice may
also be the new battle cry in California to preserve the
remaining bilingual programs.
“We need to give accurate information to parents so they
can make decisions about the education of their children,” said
Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California
Association for Bilingual Education. “If what they want is for
their children to be in good bilingual programs, they can pursue
that route. If they make the choice they don’t want their
children in bilingual education, that’s fine, too.”
Zapata, in Washington, said bilingualism has to be recast
as “the education of the future,” producing American students
who can begin as speakers of Spanish, English, or other languages
but emerge from high school fluent in two tongues.
Nationally, fights over bilingual education may be muted
because of the upcoming presidential campaign, in which the
leading contenders, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George
W. Bush, will both be trying to woo Hispanic voters.
Gore has been largely supportive of bilingual education.
Bush is pushing what he calls “English-plus”–allowing
bilingual education, so long as test scores show that children
are also progressing in English.
But the states are likely to remain the battleground for
bilingualism. A new round of California test scores is due out
next summer. If these scores also rise, that battleground will
favor the English-only cause even more.