More students mastering English

County's schools boost success rates in teaching youths new language

As county public schools continue to grapple with an influx of non-English-speakers, they have shown marked improvement in making the students competent in English.

From March 1997 to March 1998, 4.8 percent of the county’s English learners were classified English proficient by passing tests and receiving teacher recommendations. Two years later, data analyzed by The San Diego Union-Tribune from the county’s 43 public school districts shows the rate is 6.5 percent.

Put another way, one in 21 non-English speakers became proficient in the language two years ago. This year, one in 15 did.

The increase coincides with a two-year-old voter mandate, Proposition 227,
to end traditional bilingual education. Because so many schools still use it, there appears to be no connection between improved rates and the proposition’s mandate.

Rather, educators say, the governor’s push for school accountability is the force behind the increase. The state has ranked all public schools based on scores on the Stanford 9 achievement test. It will hand out nearly $1 billion in teacher bonuses, student scholarships and school improvement rewards based on this year’s recently released test scores.

English learners typically score in the bottom fifth of all test takers,
dragging down school averages. And several cash reward programs require schools to show gains by Latinos, the majority of non-English speakers, to qualify.

The rate at which students learn English contributes to how well they perform on an English-language test, such as the SAT 9, and better scores on those tests are regarded as a return on the $38 billion the state spends annually on public education.

“We have to show results. There’s more pressure on everyone to show results,” said Lisa Platt, director of English language acquisition for the Vista Unified School District.

Stanford 9 test scores for 2000 show a second straight year of improvement in state, county and local averages. The state will unveil the scores for English speakers vs. non-English speakers next month. New school rankings and rewards will be announced in the fall.

Regardless of state rankings, the percentage of students who change from learning English to proficiency can indicate the success of bilingual education or other language teaching. The percentage, known as the redesignation rate, is the chief tool for measuring how many students shift from foreign language instruction — usually in Spanish — to English-only.

“Redesignation is like graduation,” Platt said. “We’re not trying to keep our kids in the (bilingual) program. We want them to graduate.”

Students who learn English are more likely to stay in school and go on to make positive contributions to society, said Mary Perry, deputy director of EdSource, a clearinghouse and research center on California education.

Marking the gains

More than 100,000 county public school students, or about one in four, is classified as an English learner. So in addition to preparing students for college or work, public schools must teach them English.

Two years ago, 4,653 students mastered English as their second language.
This year, 6,742 students made the grade.

Joel Ruiz, an 11-year-old fifth-grader at Willow Elementary School in San Ysidro, is one of them. He said demonstrating his command of English on tests in January meant a lot. Now, during language arts class, he leaves classmates who are still in bilingual education and joins an English-only class.

“It was big to me,” said Joel, “because of what I have done to be here, and my mom and dad are very proud of me.”

Every school district has its own criteria for deciding when a student has mastered English, but there are some common benchmarks. Most local schools require some combination of minimum scores on the Stanford 9 tests, passing grades on tests that measure English speaking, writing and comprehension,
and teachers’ approval.

Schools continue to run bilingual education programs legally through parents’ extensive petitioning for it or through charter schools that are exempt from Proposition 227 and many other state laws.

Although the county’s numbers are up, its rate of 6.5 percent is less than half of what is considered a solid success and more than a full percentage point lower than the state average of 7.6.

If all students were redesignated after the five to seven years bilingual educators estimate it takes to acquire a second language, the rate would be 14 percent to 20 percent, said Jill Kerper Mora, a professor at San Diego State’s College of Education.

Mora said local schools have a more transient population than the state average because of their proximity to the Mexican border. Also, the high concentration of Latinos in Southern California means there are neighborhoods where children don’t hear English outside school, slowing their learning of a second language.

In San Diego County, numbers of non-English speakers vary from San Ysidro,
where more than three of every four students are English learners, to Alpine, Coronado, Del Mar, Julian, San Dieguito, Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe, where fewer than one in 20 is.

In San Ysidro, for example, students may be the children of uneducated immigrants, while in the more affluent San Dieguito district, English learners are often the children of faculty members at the University of California San Diego.

Some highs and lows

The Union-Tribune analysis of English-learner statistics revealed:

[] More than a third of the county’s school districts are helping students reach English proficiency at a lower rate than they were five years ago. The rate in the National School District, for example, is about a third of what it was in 1995-96. Carlsbad and Oceanside unified schools and Solana Beach and South Bay elementary schools are among those that show notable declines,
while Fallbrook and Chula Vista elementary schools show slight declines.

[] Almost all 13 districts with more than 2,000 non-English speakers improved their rates over the past two years. These districts tend to have extensive bilingual education programs. Vista, for example, has helped nearly twice as many students as last year gain English proficiency and more than three times as many as five years ago.

[] Two of the highest and most improved rates are in the affluent Poway and San Dieguito districts.

[] Other big improvements have come in San Ysidro, where the number of non-English speakers achieving English proficiency each year quadrupled from 1996-97 to 1999-2000. Other districts where the rate improved from five years ago and since Proposition 227 include San Diego city schools,
Sweetwater and Fallbrook high schools, Mountain Empire and Vista unified schools and Cajon Valley, Encinitas, Lemon Grove and Valley Center elementary schools.

[] The rate declined this year in the Oceanside Unified School District,
which ended bilingual education after the passage of Proposition 227.
Cardiff, where 192 English learners have English-only classes, has not redesignated a single student in three years.

Officials in districts with improved rates say they are pushing English language development harder, although in the context of a successful bilingual education program. In National, where the rate has declined,
Superintendent George Cameron said proving English proficiency has become more difficult because the Stanford 9 test is harder than the former state test.

Some discount English learner rates.

“I think (the improvement) is simply a reflection of keeping better track,”
Mora said.

“They’re meaningless if they go up. They’re meaningless if they go down.
Test scores are what matter,” said Ron Unz, author of Proposition 227. As proof, Unz points to Oceanside, which does not have bilingual education and lost ground in certifying English proficiency but showed great gains on the SAT 9 test.

Behind every statistic is a child.

Gilbert Quezada, 12, a sixth-grader at Vista Academy of Performing Arts, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school, became proficient after six years in bilingual education, a far different course from what Unz advocated in launching the campaign for Proposition 227. At the time, he claimed students could go English-only after one year of “sheltered English immersion”
instruction with visual aids and an emphasis on vocabulary.

For Gilbert, proficiency this year allowed him to drop his English language development class and choose a more interesting elective: the history of the Beatles.

It made a difference socially, too. His experience in the past was, “If I talk to (English speakers), they won’t pay attention to me.” Mastering English, Gilbert said, has helped him make friends more easily with English speakers.

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