Language barrier shows up in state exam

Immigrant kids not fluent in English fare poorly in California school testing

Posing a persistent and staggering challenge to California, results of a statewide achievement exam show that public schools are failing to educate immigrant children who are not fluent in English.

The results, being released Tuesday, were downplayed by politicians and school officials who said that children who lacked English skills could not be expected to do well on an English-only exam. But the results follow a study released last month by the independent nonpartisan research institute RAND comparing national test scores of California’s immigrant and low-income students to scores of similar students in other states. California ranked dead last in that comparison.

“None of these results should make anyone very happy,” said Stanford education Professor Kenji Hakuta. “What’s important to do when looking at these results, whether the RAND study or the California achievement exam, is to look at the kinds of resources these neediest students have. For one thing, you generally find the least qualified teachers working with the kids who have the greatest needs.

“California is only beginning to address the issue of how to educate limited-English kids – and to understand that this is as much an economic and resources crisis as anything else,” said Hakuta, author of “Improving Schooling for Language-Minority Children,” a U.S. Department of Education-funded report.

Twenty-five percent of California’s 5.6 million schoolchildren cannot speak English well enough to understand what goes on in the classroom. That number is expected to climb in coming years as Latinos, who are 40 percent of the student population but 80 percent of all limited-English proficient kids,
become more than 50 percent of the student population by 2005.

The achievement exam scores are for 4.3 million public schoolchildren in grades 2 through 11. They are separated into subgroups: English-fluent and limited-English proficient; boys and girls; special education students; and income level.

The school, district, county and statewide results are being posted on the California Department of Education’s Web site. The address

is cq While higher this year than last, the scores for children who are limited-English proficient are stunningly low and trail behind their English-fluent classmates. Since voters approved a 1997 ballot initiative barring bilingual instruction in the state’s schools, all students have been taught in English. The statewide exam, the Stanford 9,
has been given since 1998 and requires that all students be tested in English.

As with scores of English-fluent kids, year-to-year gains for limited-English proficient students were most prominent at the elementary level. The scores were also highest at that level, in every subject and for all children regardless of English proficiency.

But the scores highlight extreme differences between children who are fluent in English and those who are learning English as a second language. This year’s statewide achievement exam found:

Sixty-one percent of English-fluent second-graders performed at or above the national average in reading, compared with 25 percent of their limited-English proficient


Sixty percent of English-fluent fourth-graders were at or above the national average in math, compared with 27 percent of their limited-English peers.

Fifty-two percent of English-fluent sixth-graders met or surpassed the national average in spelling, compared with 16 percent of limited-English sixth-graders.

Forty-seven percent of ninth-graders scored at or above the national average in science and 62 percent in social studies, compared with 12 percent and 26 percent, respectively, of limited-English proficient ninth-graders.

The state’s top politicians and educators touted the gains while touching on the glaringly low scores of limited-English proficient children.

“These scores indicate that our focus on improved academic achievement is taking hold for all groups of students,” Gov. Davis said. “While we still have a long way to go, I am pleased that as we raise expectations in California schools, all students are benefiting from our efforts.”

State schools chief Delaine Eastin said, “The good news is that results for our English learners increased in almost all subjects and all grade levels.

“Our schools serve a population that is extremely diverse,” she said.
“Children from over 80 different language groups and cultures enter California’s schools each year, and these students possess a wide range of English proficiency. Not surprisingly, the results show that it is difficult for students to do well in academic content areas until they are proficient in English.”

The scores were quickly heralded by foes of bilingual education, who say classroom instruction should be in English.

“Last year, 1.4 million scores (of non-English fluent) kids increased by 20 percent,” said Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who wrote the anti-bilingual measure Proposition 227 and helped launch an identical initiative that will go before Arizona voters in November. “There is a further increase in scores this year. If you have a gigantic change in immigrant education in California and, at exactly the same time that occurs,
there’s a sharp rise in test scores, a reasonable person would draw an inference as to why they rose.”

The other findings released Tuesday offer few surprises: Females scored higher than males except in science and social studies; low-income children fared worse than kids who are financially better off; and special education children didn’t do as well as kids who did not have learning difficulties.

A previous set of scores released in July included results of limited-English proficient students, except for a few districts, including San Francisco, which are challenging the requirement in court.

The results of the statewide exam are important: The state will use the scores to rate schools and districts in the Academic Performance Index. Good performers will win cash bonuses; poor performers will be targeted to receive state aid.

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