Recent California test scores have become political ammunition in Arizona’s battle over bilingual education.

Proposition 203 backers say a rise in test scores among California students with limited English abilities is proof that children forced to learn English quickly here will do better in school.

Advocates of bilingual education counter that it’s too soon to label California’s elimination of bilingual education a success.

In Arizona, Proposition 203 would require all public school instruction to be conducted in English.

Students with limited English proficiency would go through an intensive one-year English immersion program, instead of a bilingual program that critics say they can stay in for years.

“We will have the same success stories,” said Maria Escalante Mendoza, co-chairwoman of the English for the Children of Arizona initiative.

If voters approve the measure at the polls Nov. 7, some 45,000 bilingual education students in the state could find themselves in English-only classrooms by early next year.

In 1998, California became the first state to abolish bilingual education, although students can still get waivers to remain in bilingual education.

Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who led California’s successful proposition to ban bilingual education, said the scores speak for themselves.

For example, in California, second-graders classified as limited in English saw an average reading score increase of 9 percentage points over the last two years.

That means the pupils climbed to the 28th percentile from the 19th percentile.

In math, the average increase for the same pupils was 14 points, to the 41st percentile from the 27th percentile.

Unz said the test improvements were even more remarkable in Oceanside, near San Diego.

There, the average reading score of those initially classified as limited-English jumped 19 percentage points over the last two years. Those children climbed to the 32nd percentile from the 13th percentile.

Unz said a neighboring district that did not embrace California’s Proposition 227 as enthusiastically as Oceanside lacked the same kind of test score improvement.

Unz said that while other education efforts – such as reduced class size and increased pressure on schools to do better on the Stanford 9 – helped improve student scores slightly, the effect English immersion has had on student performance cannot be ignored.

“We’re starting to reach the point where bilingual education advocates are starting to explain away reality,” said Unz, a major force behind the Arizona effort to do away with bilingual education.

Like Unz, Mendoza said she’s certain bilingual education supporters will find a way to discount the California results.

“They’ll take a look at this and come up with stats that show otherwise to try to discredit. This is the way they do it. They will do anything or say anything to scare the parents.”

Leonard Basurto, director of bilingual education for Tucson Unified School District, said it’s too soon to draw any conclusions about the effect Proposition 227 is having on education in California.

He said other data show that limited-English children in Vista, the school district adjacent to San Diego’s, are learning English at nearly twice the rate of those in Oceanside.

The redesignation rate in Vista is 7.8 percent compared with 4.1 percent in Oceanside.

The redesignation rate is a measure of students going from limited-English to proficient.

Basurto said that if the proposition were truly successful, the redesignation rate would be closer to 100 percent.

* The New York Times News Service contributed to this report. Contact Hipolito R. Corella at 573-4191 or at [email protected]

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