A blow to bilingual education

English immersion may raise test scores

In the two years since California voters passed a sweeping ballot initiative designed to end bilingual education, superintendent Ken Noonan of the Oceanside Unified School District has become something of a poster child for proponents of English immersion for Spanish-speaking kids. After seeing a sharp rise in immigrant kids’ test scores since bilingual classes were ended, Noonan, founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators and a strong opponent of Proposition 227, is now a believer. “I thought it would be harmful, but I was wrong,” he says. “The kids have taken to English and are absorbing it like sponges.”

The results in Oceanside, which kept separate classes for English learners but embraced all-English instruction even as other districts dragged their feet, were particularly dramatic. But throughout California, according to statewide test results released this month, students designated as “limited-English-proficient” saw their scores increase at nearly every subject and grade level. (New federal figures show Hispanics still scoring lower than whites on national reading, math, and science tests, though the gap was even wider between black and white students.)

Despite the positive signs, many analysts say it’s too early to draw firm conclusions. For one thing, test scores for all students were up in California this year as a new state accountability system has given schools a big incentive to boost results. For another, the magnitude of the gains was similar or slightly lower for English learners than for their fluent peers. On second-grade reading tests, for instance, limited English speakers rose from the 19th percentile in 1998 to the 28th percentile this year. The same 9-point gain occurred for all second graders, who moved from the 39th to the 48th percentile.

On to Arizona. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, who spearheaded the anti-bilingual movement in California and is now pushing a copycat measure in Arizona, says gains have been greatest in districts that have moved quickly to end bilingual classes. But bilingual proponent Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor, points to score increases in some districts that retain the traditional approach. Then there’s the tricky matter of disentangling the demise of bilingual ed from other reforms, from class-size reduction to phonics-based reading instruction. “There have been so many changes in California in the last few years that it’s really hard to know what’s causing what,” says University of California-San Diego economist Julian Betts. Still, Noonan is convinced that teaching in English is a big part of what has helped his students. And if Oceanside’s scores had gone down, he says, “the critics of immersion would have been on us like flies on honey.”

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