Local Spanish-speaking students have scored higher on state-mandated Spanish-language tests than their state and national peers and improved on their high scores from last year.

The Spanish Assessment of Basic Education, or SABE/2, was administered to nearly 20,000 students in the county. The results indicate that, whatever their proficiency in English, local Spanish speakers are learning reading, mathematics, language arts and spelling in their own language.

The scores are expected to contrast sharply with non-English-speakers’ results on the Stanford 9 test — typically far below the national average — when additional Stanford 9 data are released tomorrow. The Stanford 9 is the mandatory English-language test for state public school students. Like the test in Spanish, it is administered to second- through 11th-graders, and it covers several of the same subjects.

The county’s SABE/2 scores topped state scores in every grade and every subject. They also surpassed the national average in every grade and subject except high school math.

“They are learning content, and this proves it,” said Sarah Clayton, assistant superintendent of the Valley Center Unified School District.

Valley Center’s students had the highest average scores in the county on the Spanish reading test in fourth through eighth grades.

Other state data indicate that the county’s 108,000 non-English-speaking students — 22.5 percent of the total — are performing better in school than in the past. The scores of English learners on the Stanford 9 test went up from 1998 to 1999. Also, the redesignation rate — the percentage of kids who learn enough English to be reclassified as English-speaking — is on the rise countywide.

“The SABE/2 does give teachers and administrators a good feel for a kid’s academic potential,” said Jack Tierney, manager of assessment and planning in the county Office of Education. “If they’ve got good Spanish reading, they’ll learn English faster.”

Whether the Spanish test scores will translate into better future performance in English is the subject of debate. Bilingual education advocates insist that children who master their native language first will in the long run perform better in English than if they had been immersed directly in English-language classes. Others maintain that students should learn English as soon as possible and that immersion results in immediate gains in language acquisition and test scores.

The Spanish test is mandatory for Spanish-speaking students who have been in California less than 12 months. However, children who have been in state schools for more than a year but are still not considered English speakers can take the test and were the majority of test takers.

The test scores will not be used in the state’s ranking of schools based on test scores.

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