Results are in from the first round of tests taken by students since California largely ended bilingual education in June 1998, and they are good–and that is a major event in education politics and policy.
Scores released last week for this year’s Stanford 9 test in California were up in all grades and all subjects for English speakers and also for students new to English. Californians are now engaged in a vigorous debate about the reason for this improvement–Proposition 227’s mandated end to bilingual education or a host of other school reforms implemented in the past few years. But at least the scores did not go down, as some pro-bilingualists had predicted. This probably means a big boost for efforts to roll back bilingual education in other states, as well as nationally.
The gains in California have certainly heartened Maria Mendoza, 62, a Tucson woman who has been trying for three decades to end bilingual education in neighboring Arizona. Mendoza hopes to get a measure like California’s Proposition 227 on the Arizona ballot for 2000.
“I think this will be my last year, because I think we will win,” said Mendoza, who heads her state’s “English for the Children” campaign, modeled after Proposition 227. “We will use those results to say, ‘Proposition 227 in California worked.’ ”
Mendoza launched her one-woman campaign in 1968, when, as a parent, she went to a fourth-grade bilingual classroom and was
shocked to find students who couldn’t read English. In 1974, she sued the Tucson Unified School District, asserting that students in bilingual classes were being discriminated against by not being taught English. The suit led to a statute requiring the district to give parents a choice about placing their children in bilingual classes. Not enough, says Mendoza; all Arizona school districts should ban bilingual education.
Mendoza had almost given up any hope of success. Then, last year, Proposition 227 passed in California. So she called Ron K. Unz, the wealthy California entrepreneur who spearheaded the 227 effort. She also contacted several Arizona state legislators, and held a forum to spread the English-only gospel. Mendoza hoped the California test scores would give her more ammunition in her push toward 2000. Now, she feels that her wish has been granted. “Right away you can tell these children are scoring way above [last year’s scores],” she said. “If they did not understand the English instruction, their test scores would have been worse.”
Even bilingual proponents fear that test gains in California, particularly among children who are not native English speakers, will fuel anti-bilingual pressures around the country, especially in Colorado, New York, and Massachusetts, and in cities such as Houston, all of which have growing Hispanic populations. “There’s going to be, and there already is . . . a temptation to say, ‘Look at California,’ ” said Jaime A. Zapata, a spokesman for the National Association for Bilingual Education, in Washington.
Recent polls point to strong public sentiment in favor of English-only education. Last year Unz commissioned the polling firm Zogby International, of Utica, N.Y., to take the country’s pulse on the issue of bilingual education and found that a Proposition 227-like law would win nationally, 77 percent to 19 percent. Pollsters at Arizona Opinion in Tucson found support among 72 percent of voters in that state.
But, in truth, it is hard to draw too many absolute conclusions from California’s new scores on the Stanford 9 test, which is given, in English, to students in grades 2 to 11. In this, the second year that students statewide have taken the test, average reading scores are up from a 39.6 percentile last year to a 42.2 percentile this year for students in grades 2 to 6. For children not fluent in English, the scores are up from a 15.6 percentile to an 18.4 percentile. A score of 50 is the national mean out of a maximum of 99 points.
California’s top school official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, said that Proposition 227 could not be called an “off-the-charts winner” because children who speak English at home, as well as those who don’t, both posted similar point gains. Students with limited English proficiency improved their reading scores by 2.8 percentile points, on average, whereas scores for all students jumped 2.6 percentile points.
She also noted that in the past couple of years, California had instituted a variety of other school reforms that may have helped boost scores, including smaller class size and greater use of phonics.
Proponents of bilingual education say it is impossible to know so soon what caused the rise. Some attribute it to the likelihood that students have gotten used to the annual test. According to researchers, students given a new test often improve in the first few years as they become accustomed to it.
Unz, however, sees success in the scores. He says a three- or four-point gain in percentile terms may not seem like much to students doing well, but to non-English- speaking students in lower grades who last year may have scored in the 15th percentile, a jump to the 18th or 20th percentile means a 20 percent or 30 percent improvement. Viewed from that standpoint, students with little English proficiency improved, on average, by 18 percent across the state, whereas all students showed only a 7 percent improvement, Unz said.
And, he added, the point is that the pro-bilingual folks predicted doom and gloom, and it did not happen. “They claimed scores would plummet [after 227]; instead immigrant test scores are up 20 percent from last year,” Unz said. “If test scores had gone down 20 percent, they would have said, ‘That’s proof 227 was a disaster.’ ” Unz also noted that not all schools fully implemented the proposition last year, and many districts and parents chose to exercise waivers, which kept students in bilingual classes this year. In districts that embraced 227 wholeheartedly, however, the test-score improvements were more dramatic, he said.
In Oceanside, for example, a community north of San Diego that completely ended bilingual classes, students who don’t speak English at home gained 43 percent in reading scores, climbing from an 8.8 percentile to a 12.6 percentile, compared with all students in the district, whose scores rose 16 percent in reading, from an average percentile score of 35.4 to 41. Unz contrasts these gains with those of the San Jose Unified School District, which retained bilingual classes. In San Jose, percentile scores rose from 43.0 to 44.4 for all students, and from 15.0 to 15.6 for non-English speakers, gains of only 3 percent and 4 percent, respectively.
Joseph Farley, the principal at Mission Elementary School in Oceanside last year and now a district-level administrator, did an about-face on 227 when the scores came in. Farley, who supported bilingual education for 20 years, worried that his students, half of whom had limited English and 80 percent of whom were from low-income households, would drown when immersed in English. Instead of sinking, the students learned to swim. At Mission Elementary, children with limited English improved 111 percent in reading, from a 7.0 percentile to a 14.8 percentile, compared with a 66 percent increase among all children, from a 15.2 percentile to a 25.2 percentile.
Children at Mission who spoke no English last fall left in June speaking English to one another on the playground, Farley said. “The obvious interpretation is that the children are learning English more rapidly” in an English-only environment, he said.
Testimonials such as Farley’s, perhaps more than the scores themselves, can bolster the case against bilingualism in other states. But pro-bilingual forces will not be standing still.
Taking a page from abortion-rights groups, pro-bilingual groups may begin framing the issue as one of choice. “The most important message is that this proposition is removing parental options,” said Alejandra Sotomayor, a middle-school curriculum specialist for Tucson Unified and president of the Tucson Association for Bilingual Education. Sotomayor promises to launch a large education campaign in Arizona to counter whatever Maria Mendoza and her anti-bilingual camp can organize. And choice may also be the new battle cry in California to preserve the remaining bilingual programs.
“We need to give accurate information to parents so they can make decisions about the education of their children,” said Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education. “If what they want is for their children to be in good bilingual programs, they can pursue that route. If they make the choice they don’t want their children in bilingual education, that’s fine, too.”
Zapata, in Washington, said bilingualism has to be recast as “the education of the future,” producing American students who can begin as speakers of Spanish, English, or other languages but emerge from high school fluent in two tongues.
Nationally, fights over bilingual education may be muted because of the upcoming presidential campaign, in which the leading contenders, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, will both be trying to woo Hispanic voters.
Gore has been largely supportive of bilingual education. Bush is pushing what he calls “English-plus”–allowing bilingual education, so long as test scores show that children are also progressing in English.
But the states are likely to remain the battleground for bilingualism. A new round of California test scores is due out next summer. If these scores also rise, that battleground will favor the English-only cause even more.