Wide disparities in test scores of English learners

School districts taking different approaches, getting very different results

In suburban Novato, nearly 80 percent of English-fluent second-graders outperformed their peers nationwide on a statewide reading exam. But only 24 percent of their classmates who are learning English reached that level.

Across the bay in the bedroom community of Castro Valley, scores of English-fluent second- graders were similarly high. But 62 percent of English learners there reached the national average.

Throughout California and the Bay Area, there is a wide and disturbing achievement gap between English speakers and English learners. But an Examiner analysis of recent statewide test results for grades 2, 6 and 10 found a handful of districts closing the gap, using strategies that could work elsewhere.

The districts have common traits: They push educators to earn credentials to teach immigrant kids, teach classes only in English and set high standards for their immigrant students.

“I do not buy into this notion that some kids can get to the national average, and some can’t,” said Dennis Chaconas, superintendent of Alameda City Unified, where 20 percent of his students are English learners, and 55 languages are spoken.

“I hear people say, ‘Of course scores of limited-English kids are low. They don’t understand the test,'” Chaconas said. “That’s a cop-out. My kids are going to have to pass a test in English to get a high school diploma and go to college. My kids have to compete.”

At Alameda City schools, 69 percent of English-fluent students reached or surpassed the national average on this year’s statewide achievement test,
followed closely by 55 percent of students still learning English.

The success of districts such as Alameda defies the trend statewide, where a large gap exists between the scores of students learning English and those who are fluent.

Results released last month of the reading portion of the statewide exam show that 56 percent of English speakers in second grade scored at or above the national average, compared with 19 percent of English learners, a 37-point achievement gap. The gap in sixth-grade reading scores was even wider — 45 points apart. By 10th grade, the gap narrowed slightly, to 35 points in reading and 29 points in math.

Parity in education for students from immigrant families remains one of the greatest challenges facing California. Nearly 25 percent of the 5.6 million children in public schools in California are not fluent in English. Indeed,
California, which educates 12.5 percent of American public school children,
has 43 percent of the nation’s limited-English students.

Many educators argue that students who speak limited English should not have to take the state test because they do not speak the language and cannot be expected to do well. Alameda superintendent Chaconas disagrees: “If your youngster is Spanish-speaking and has low test scores, you wouldn’t say the test failed him. You’d say the system did. And you’d be right.”

Another district closing the gap is Evergreen Elementary in South San Jose in Santa Clara County. Nearly 30 percent of the 13,000 students are English learners, and 36 percent are low-income.

Yet 57 percent of the district’s second-graders who speak limited English scored at or above the national average this year, compared with 72 percent of second-graders fluent in English.

“About 10 years ago, we saw such an increase in our limited-English student population that we said every single classroom teacher must learn the strategies to teach these kids,” said Assistant Superintendent Phyllis Lindstrom.

“Now, embedded in every single staff-development meeting, whether it’s about math or anything else, are strategies for helping limited-English-proficient kids,” Lindstrom said. “If we’re dealing with a new math concept, for example, and we’re talking about using manipulatives, we would also say to teachers: “And for your students acquiring English, you should use this manipulative, show these examples, hook it to a student’s prior knowledge by doing this.’.”

No other Bay Area district comes close to the success of the second-grade English learners in Castro Valley Unified, where a whopping 81 percent of students reached the national average in math, scoring 5 points higher than their English-fluent classmates.

Associate superintendent Jim Fitzpatrick credits improved teacher training and English-only instruction for the solid scores. English is taught from kindergarten on, and the district pays educators to earn a credential called CLAD — Cross Cultural Language Acquisition Development — designed for teachers who work with immigrant students, he said.

Still, he allowed, “We have a luxury that most districts don’t have. In our district, less than 5 percent of our 7,700 kids are limited English. So,
they don’t get lost.”

California’s schools chief Delaine Eastin said districts that had narrowed the gap had a clear strategy for teaching English learners. “They are really very organized in how they go about it. They put teachers through the CLAD program, provide extra help for these kids after school, and they have high expectations for them.”

But Stanford education professor Kenji Hakuta warns against inferring too much from statistics alone.

“There are nuances,” he said, “such as how many (English learners) are tested and what the family income and education level is. What the gaps do is present a really good signal that people ought to pay attention to these kids.”

In Novato Unified, where fewer than 10 percent of the 8,000 K-12 students are still learning English, wide achievement gaps exist in reading and math.

Although the district has traditionally taught in English only,
superintendent John Bernard said he was concerned the district had not been providing “all we want to for limited-English-proficient kids.”

Since taking his job in January, Bernard has required new teachers to have a CLAD credential “or sign a contract saying they’ll get it.”

But teacher and student attitudes may be as important as the training, he notes. Some critics have said Novato Unified didn’t put as much effort into the educational needs of immigrant students. This year, he said, the district is also taking a close look at its overall treatment of minority students.

“There have been reports in the media of insensitivity to racial differences,” Bernard said, referring to a string of racial incidents at sporting events. “In the last year, we’ve put programs in place that will ensure dignity, respect and equity for everyone. We looked at our district’s strengths and weaknesses. A weakness was the fact that we may not have been doing enough to respect diversity. And that affects learning.”

In the San Mateo County district of La Honda-Pescadero Unified, considerably smaller than Novato but with a similar achievement gap, English learners were taught in bilingual classes — until this year.

“With the passage of Prop. 227, we switched over to English immersion,” said Superintendent Bonnie McClung, noting that 35 percent of the district’s students were English learners. “We’d taught them in Spanish for the last three years, and before that there was really no program. Teachers did the best they could. I think this method of instruction is better, and our results will improve.”

But not all districts unsuccessful with limited-English students think switching from bilingual education to English-only instruction is the answer.

One of widest gaps in the Bay Area exists at Cabrillo Unified in Half Moon Bay, where 20 percent of the 3,800 students are still learning English.
Here, 68 percent of fluent sixth-graders scored at or above the national average. Not a single sixth-grade or 10th-grade student still learning English scored above the national average in reading.

In this community, parents of the largely Spanish-speaking immigrant students applied for waivers to Prop. 227, the initiative passed by voters in 1998 banning bilingual classes. Two of Cabrillo’s four elementary schools provide instruction almost entirely in Spanish.

“This is a complex issue, and we need time to study the data to see what the scores mean,” said Assistant Superintendent Allan Kass. “Most of our population is agricultural, with very little English or (proper) Spanish.
So, if they’re at the 25th percentile, that’s success. They come into the district at zero.”

Even so, once a disparity exits, “studies show that it’s very difficult for these kids to narrow the gap,” said Maria Carlo, an assistant professor in the graduate school of education at Harvard University.

What might start as a small difficulty, such as an inability to recognize certain words or letters is compounded over time, Carlo said. That inability to recognize words then limits acquisition of vocabularly and exposure to books, which leads to differences in all subjects. “What people say about the rich getting richer and poor getting poorer applies here,” said Carlo.
“When that gap is ignored, it is never narrowed.”

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