In school after school, grade after grade, many Orange County students who have successfully learned English as a second language are outscoring their native-English peers on California’s statewide test.
As the state wrangles in court over whether it can release the test scores of students who are not fluent in English, scores already released by Orange County schools reveal what is more than a statistical quirk. The results have educators reexamining everything from the role of motivation in academic achievement to the value of learning a foreign language early and the success or failure of bilingual education.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon,” said Gerry Shelton, a testing administrator at the state Department of Education. In educational jargon,
there are several classifications for designating English proficiency: FEP is Fluent English Proficiency; LEP is Limited English Proficiency; R-FEP is Redesignated Fluent English Proficiency for students who entered school speaking limited English but who have improved language skills. FEP also includes students who were fluent in both English and their primary languages before they entered the district.
A snapshot of the Stanford 9 standardized test results in a few districts shows this trend. In the Fullerton School District, for example, fourth-graders who speak only English scored at the 59th percentile in reading; their counterparts who had been redesignated as English fluent were at the 67th percentile.
Similar patterns are seen in districts such as Garden Grove Unified and Irvine Unified.
Educators are intrigued but not particularly surprised by the findings.
“We noticed the same pattern last year,” said Pat Puleo, testing administrator for the Fullerton School District, where a different version of the Stanford exam was administered last year.
Administrators say they will be examining the trend as they compare test data over the years. However, they offered some preliminary explanations.
First, the numbers of these students are usually smaller than the pool of English-only students, and by the natural laws of statistics, scores tend to fall when the size of a group is larger.
Also, students who have learned English fluently are by definition a selective group. For non-English-speaking students to be reclassified as fluent, they must pass various language exams. One common criterion is that they must score at least at the 36th percentile on a standardized test.
“If they have to score above the 36th percentile, then they will be part of the top two-thirds,” said Newport Mesa Unified assessment administrator Eleanor Anderson. “If R-FEP only contains the top two-thirds,
that’s a different pot from an all-student pot like the English-only category.”
Furthermore, students who enter school fluent in two languages or who find it easier to make the leap to bilingualism often come from motivated and educated families. Cultural values also play into student performance.
Strong emphasis on academic achievements is common in Asian cultures. That’s why the bilingual categories generally have higher numbers of Asian students than other ethnic groups.
Consider Garden Grove Unified: last year’s data, the most recent information available, showed that the majority of the 3,850 students reclassified as English-fluent were Vietnamese and Korean. Spanish-speakers made up 34%
of that pool, though they represented 60% of the limited-English group.
In addition, volumes of research contend that children exposed to multiple languages often read earlier and more quickly than monolingual students.
“These are very strong learners,” said Santa Ana Unified Supt.
Al Mijares, adding that similar patterns are noted in his district. “Part of it has to do with these students’ vocabulary, which is very rich because they determine meanings of words in two languages.”
“It appears to have to do with the way bilingual students see letters in both languages,” said Renate Caine, professor emeritus of educational psychology at Cal State San Bernardino. “They are more familiar with letters and are able to make sense of it faster.”
The results also are refueling the debate over traditional bilingual education, which was eliminated in the June election when voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 227. That initiative is being challenged in court.
“The new test data does add to the equation and gives credence to bilingual education to show that it is good,” said Dan Fichtner, former president of a pro-bilingual education group and current English-as-a-second-language department chair at Palos Verdes Peninsula High School.
Proponents say the high scores of the students who have learned English shows that bilingual education produces knowledgeable students. Opponents say the tests show the failure of bilingual education because it has produced such a small population of reclassified students.
“Some argue the reason FEP kids do well because they have received primary language instruction,” Santa Ana’s Mijares said. “That remains to be seen.” Instead of using the Stanford 9 results to resurrect bilingual education, Mijares said, he will analyze the detailed data to evaluate his district’s programs.
“I do believe at some point, every student needs to take a test in English,” he said. “I prefer to put my efforts in raising these scores.” In the meantime, release of test scores for all California schools have been blocked until at least July 16. A San Francisco court judge ruled in late June that the state can publish only test results that exclude scores of non-English-speaking students.
That decision was made after two Bay Area districts argued total scores cannot be released and fairly compared statewide because limited-English students in the San Francisco Unified School District were exempt from taking the test after winning a previous legal challenge. The California Department of Education since has only released state average scores by grades.
English Skills and Test Scores
Students making the switch from speaking mostly a foreign language to fluent English tend to rank as high or higher on the Stanford 9 test than English-only and limited-English speakers. Scores below are expressed in percentiles, meaning students were ranked, on average, against a nationally selected group of test-takers in multiple subjects, including reading and math.
FEP: (Fluent English Proficiency) Student who natively speaks a language
other than English but is also fluent in English
R-FEP: Student entered district speaking limited English but developed
enough skills to be reclassified Fluent English Proficient
English 71 71
FEP 76 79
R-FEP 82 89
English 75 71
FEP 82 85
R-FEP 69 74
English 76 70
FEP 80 87
R-FEP 64 79
English 51 59
FEP 61 69
R-FEP 61 75
English 59 56
FEP 60 67
R-FEP 67 77
English 61 64
FEP 67 77
R-FEP 68 85
Garden Grove Unified
English 48 47
FEP 59 62
R-FEP n/a n/a
English 48 45
FEP 56 63
R-FEP 71 81
English 54 54
FEP 62 66
R-FEP 61 72
English 39 41
FEP 53 59
R-FEP 44 35
English 39 30
FEP 44 40
R-FEP 48 48
English 42 45
FEP 42 49
R-FEP 44 46
Source: Orange County Department of Education, individual districts;
Researched by TINA NGUYEN /Los Angeles Times