Jumping the gun on bilingual assessments

One year after the passage of Proposition 227, the release of SAT-9
scores in school districts throughout California is bringing claims
of victory from the proponents of the anti-bilingual education
initiative that passed by an 11-percent margin of votes in June 1998.

Supporters of Proposition 227, along with its author, Silicon
Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, have taken an early lead in attributing
gains in the test scores of students designated as limited English
proficient (LEP) to enforcement of initiative and alleged successes
of structured English immersion.

There was near jubilation from the Proposition 227 camp in
response to the release of scores from Oceanside School District on
June 16. The Oceanside district has 4,000 limited-English proficient

The next day, The Wall Street Journal chimed in to the cries of “I
told you so” with an editorial. The WSJ congratulated the 61 percent
of California’s voters, reassuring them that they ” . . . can take
some satisfaction for having ignored the demagogues last year by
deciding to end a failed program.”

The editors attributed this “success” to six months of English
immersion under Proposition 227 and to Oceanside Superintendent Ken
Noonan’s choice for strict enforcement of the new law. At the
beginning of the school year, Superintendent Noonan had stepped into
the media spotlight to become the darling of Proposition 227
proponents when he refused to grant waivers for bilingual instruction
to 150 out of 155 parental requests.

The early release of Oceanside’s SAT-9 scores, before the
statewide scores were available, was clearly a political pre-emptive
strike. Following publication of the district’s LEP student scores,
Unz appeared on National Public Radio (June 18) calling for an end to
waivers for instruction in students’ native languages. Unz claimed
that statewide test results would clearly show bilingual education to
be ineffective and English-only to be effective and that the
proponents of Proposition 227 ” . . . will move to outlaw bilingual

Meanwhile, bilingual educators began to scrutinize the Oceanside
claims with skepticism. The Oceanside scores placed seventh-grade
students at the 23rd percentile on the SAT-9, three standard
deviations below the mean. These scores indicated that at most grade
levels, LEP students are performing two or three grade levels below
their native English speaking peers. Educators with expertise in
testing and assessment also decried the superficiality of analysis
and the statistical validity of the reports and subsequent

A report that any group of seventh-grade language-minority
students’ scores are performing at the 23rd percentile on a
standardized test is, in fact, not good news. Oceanside’s seventh-
grade LEP students SAT-9 scores indicated that they are reading and
performing in the content areas at about a fourth-grade level.

From a programmatic perspective, the scores are also inconclusive.
Last year’s STAR reports from the California Department of Education
that in 1998 the average for California’s limited-English-proficient
seventh graders was the 24th percentile. Oceanside’s seventh graders
are now at the same level as last year’s statewide LEP average, when
bilingual programs were undisturbed by Proposition 227.

These low test scores are no comfort to advocates for language-
minority students concerned with closing the achievement gap between
English-language learners and their native English-speaking peers.
Standardized test scores in the teens and 20s mean that a school
district has a long way to go toward bringing these students up to
grade level in their academic performance.

Many parents see the benefits of bilingualism, that gives their
children valuable language skills to gain a competitive edge into
careers in an expanding global marketplace.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and the will of parents still
carries more weight in many school districts regarding decisions
about their children’s education than the will of a majority of
voters. Where there are cooperative and forward-looking school
administrators, qualified bilingual educators and parents who can
exercise their free and informed choice of educational programs they
believe to be most effective for their children, bilingual education
will survive and thrive.

Mora is assistant professor of teacher Education at San Diego State University
where she prepares teachers for the Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development credential.

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