California students' test scores show moderate gains

Officials debate whether Prop. 227 caused small boost for low-income, limited-English students.

Limited-English and low-income students shared in the gains posted this year on the state achievement test although their scores still lagged behind state and national averages, results released today show.

Two years after voters passed Proposition 227, an initiative that curtailed bilingual education in California, scores of limited-English students increased by about the same number of points in the elementary grades as recorded by California students as a whole. They went up by 3 to 5 points statewide in reading and by 5 to 7 points in mathematics.

The same moderate gains were seen in Ventura County.

Countywide, limited-English students’ scores increased by 2 to 6 points in reading in the elementary grades, averaging between the 20th and 28th percentiles. That puts those students in the bottom third of a national distribution with the 50th percentile being the national average.

The news was better in mathematics, where limited-English third-graders reached the 39th percentile, about 10 points below the national average. In both Ventura County and the state, scores in the early grades were consistently higher and showed greater growth than the middle grade levels and the high school grades, where there was little change.

Scores went up by 8 to 11 points in mathematics for low-income children in the elementary grades, and by 4 to 9 points in reading. But they increased by a greater rate for upper-income children, registering gains of 12 to 14 points in math and 9 to 11 points in reading. The scores for upper-income children were also more consistent in the later grades, showing increases of 4 to 11 points in math in eighth through 11th grades.

Gov. Gray Davis lauded the gains made statewide.

“These scores indicate that our focus on improved academic achievement is taking hold for all groups of students,” Davis 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.”

“We must,” he said, “remain committed to narrowing the gaps between English learners and students fluent in English, and between economically disadvantaged students and those who are not.”

The results come two years after voters passed Proposition 227, an initiative that curtailed bilingual education in many school districts. Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley businessman who spearheaded the initiative, said he was “very pleased” with the results.

His analysis shows that districts that adopted the shift to immersion in English had much better results than those retaining bilingual education, Unz said.

He cited, in particular, the Oceanside Unified School District, where test scores of limited-English students in grades two through six went up by 11 points in reading and 18 points in math over a two-year period. He credited that to the district’s return to traditional teaching of reading and mathematics as well as a strict English immersion program.

“Districts which haven’t done as well as Oceanside should learn from Oceanside,” he said.

But state education officials said that it will take them a couple months to complete an in-depth analysis of the test scores, and that the accuracy of results for limited English students from both 1998 and 1999 are questionable. Most educators say it will be years before the success or failure of Proposition 227 can be determined because of the four to five years that it takes students to acquire a second language.

Educators credited the gains among low-income and limited-English students to some of the same factors that have pushed up scores for students in general: after-school tutoring programs, small class sizes in the early grades and a focus on the state’s academic standards and the test itself.

Limited-English and low-income students’ test scores have historically lagged behind the state and national averages not only in California but across the country. And the scores released today show that the effect of language, family background and education remain strong: Low-income students’ scores in reading averaged in the lower third to the lower quartile, while higher income students fell in the top half. Limited-English students’ scores fell in the bottom one-fourth to bottom one-fifth, while English-speaking students’ scores reached the top third.

The Fillmore Unified School District was one of the few in Ventura County to convert its classes for English learners to the immersion approach after Proposition 227 passed. Most of the others have continued to stress bilingual instruction, which is allowed by the initiative if parents sign waivers.

In that district, scores in second and third grade did go up substantially — by 11 points in second-grade reading and by 20 points in second-grade math.

Assistant Superintendent Jane Kampbell attributed the gains not just to hard work and hewing to the state’s academic standards, but to the fact that students are being taught in English and tested in English. One would expect those students to score better in the early grades than those who were taught in Spanish but required to take a test in English, she said.

But she said it is too early to say whether Ron Unz was right.

“The proof of the pudding is as the kids go through the grades, and we’re watching that very carefully,” she said. “It’s our hope they’re going to get stronger as they go through the grades.”

Under the governor’s education reforms, schools must show improvement in test scores for limited-English, economically disadvantaged and minority students as well as the population as a whole. And many educators already are learning to use data to target these students with strategies that work, said Diane Dempwolf, director of standards, curriculum and assessment for the county Superintendent of Schools Office.

— Kathleen Wilson’s e-mail address is [email protected]



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