For the 1.4 million limited-English-proficient students in California, the elimination of bilingual education in 1998 with Proposition 227 meant they would have to sink or swim in an English-only learning environment. As indicated by the recently released scores of the Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition (SAT 9), part of the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program, many did swim and even managed to improve drastically over prior year scores.
Many proponents of bilingual education had feared that the passage of Prop 227–a June 1998 ballot initiative that in large ended bilingual education in favor of English immersion programs–would have devastating effects on limited-English students. Predictions that these students would fall behind because subjects such as math, social studies and science were no longer taught in their native languages, were widespread.
But last week’s release of the standardized test scores show an increase in the scores for limited-English students across all subjects and grades. The greatest gains were achieved by grades two through five. Math scores for limited English-students in grades two through five increased an average of seven points, or 25 percent, from 1999 to 2000. And reading and language scores, a greater indicator of mastering the English language, were up six and five points respectively, in the second grade.
The STAR program, now in its third year, uses a nationally normed test to gauge the skills of students in grades two through eleven. The standardized test must be taken in English, thus putting limited-English students at a disadvantage in truly showing their knowledge.
“Our schools serve a population that is extremely diverse,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, noting that about 25 percent of California students have limited English proficiency. “Children from over 80 different language groups and cultures enter California’s schools each year, and these students possess a wide range of English proficiency,” Eastin said. “Not surprisingly, the [test] results show that it is difficult for students to do well in academic content areas until they are proficient in English.”
Eastin stressed that continued efforts, such as “providing better teacher training, standards-aligned instructional materials, and additional support for low achieving students” must be made to continue these achievements.
“As these gains show, our English language learners are holding their own?this is indeed a positive sign,” Eastin said. “I commend schools across the state for their efforts to ensure that all students become sufficiently skilled in English to achieve academic success.”
Ron Unz, author of Prop. 227 was pleased by the significant increase in performance of English learner students, due to his initiative. “During 1998, supporters of bilingual education predicted educational catastrophe if the measure were implemented, but the school district which [followed the measure] most strictly has now doubled its immigrant test scores in less than two years,” he said, referring to Oceanside Unified School District, a district which has seen its second-grade average reading score jump 19 percentage points since 1998.
“Schools in California and throughout the entire nation should come to Oceanside and learn from its wonderful example, both in English immersion and in other areas as well,” he said.
Oceanside’s neighboring school district, Vista, which granted waivers to 2,500 students to continue bilingual education despite Prop. 227, did not fare nearly as well. Despite being of similar size and economic background, Vista’s increases in performance scores were barely half of Oceanside’s increases.
More efforts are already on the way to increase funding for intensive English language instruction. Gov. Gray Davis has included in his 2000-01 budget a $260 million program that will provide120 hours of English immersion instruction to more than 625,000 schoolchildren during the school year. Funding for the training of 70,000 teachers, with an emphasis on instruction of limited-English students among other skills, will also be included.
Gov. Davis expressed great optimism at these test score achievements and what they mean for the education system. “These scores indicate that our focus on improved academic achievement is taking hold for all groups of students,” he said. “While we still have a long way to go, I am pleased that as we raise expectations in California schools, all students are benefiting from our efforts.
“Despite these important gains,” he added, “we must remain committed to narrowing the gaps between English learners and students fluent in English.”
The test score results of California will likely serve as an example to other states, such as New York, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Colorado, where bilingual education is a hot topic.