Computer glitch clouds any gauge of Prop. 227's effectiveness

Daniel M. Weintraub and Elizabeth Chey

SACRAMENTO — News of Proposition 227’s success might have been greatly exaggerated. The 1998 initiative that sought to end bilingual education in public schools may yet turn out to be a boon to immigrant children. But the first objective signs of the initiative’s early promise were unclear at best.

The state Department of Education announced Wednesday that the test’s publisher mistakenly combined the scores of limited-English children with those of students who had become fluent. That means the scores for limited-English kids — the targets of Prop. 227 — were inflated when reported as a group.

The correct scores are expected to be released by July 15.

The error could hardly have occurred in a more explosive arena.

Prop. 227 rubbed a raw nerve in California politics as the third in a series of ballot measures in the 1990s that dealt with ethnic issues. Pushed by millionaire computer software entrepreneur Ron Unz and Santa Ana schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, the initiative divided the Hispanic community and forced both major political parties to re-examine their relationships with the state’s fastest-growing voter bloc.

It passed with 61 percent of the vote.

Since the measure’s changes took hold last fall, its backers and opponents have pounced on every possible sign of its effect on schoolchildren. Anecdotal reports began to surface earlier this year from teachers and parents suggesting that students placed in English-immersion classes mandated by the measure were faring well. Even some who had fought the initiative said they were surprised at the results.

Those stories seemed to be buttressed by facts as scores on the state’s standardized test — the Stanford 9 — began to trickle in last month. Some schools said their English learners had doubled or tripled their scores in the year since Prop. 227 took effect.

In the Magnolia School District in Anaheim, scores for English language learners rose an average of 12 percentile points in grades two-six in reading, spelling, language and math. In Fullerton, second-grade language scores rose 11 points and eighth grade reading scores jumped 14 points.

Those results prompted Unz to call his creation “the most rapidly successful education reform in history.”

Unz declined to retreat from that description even after hearing Wednesday about the error in the scores. He pointed out that only about 5 percent to 10 percent of English learners are redesignated by the schools as fluent each year. It was those redesignated students whose scores were mistakenly lumped in with the limited-English kids.

“So the mistake represents a small fraction of the kids under Prop. 227,” he said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin said Wednesday that she thought the error probably boosted group scores for limited-English kids by about 5 percentile points. But Eastin aide Gerry Shelton said later that the figure his boss used was his own “bootstrap analysis” without much real information to back it up.

No one will know for sure until the accurate reports are released. And even those scores are unlikely to settle this debate, as examples can be found to support either side.

In Santa Ana, for instance, students whose parents asked for waivers to keep them in bilingual programs did as well as those who were immersed in English.

At Pio Pico Elementary School, where about 95 percent of the students are limited-English and more than 50 percent of those students stayed in bilingual education, scores in second-grade reading climbed from the 16th percentile to the 23rd.

At Jackson Elementary, where 90 percent of students are limited English but all went to English immersion, scores inched up from the 20th percentile to the 21st in second-grade reading.

“Schools with lots of waivers made the same significant jumps that schools without waivers did,” said Linda Del Guidice, director of research and evaluation. “Much of that is attributed to test preparation and aligning our curriculum with the state content standards. We had little first- and second-graders practice how to fill the bubbles on the test.”

Silvina Rubinstein, executive director of the California Association for Bilingual Education, said even the “cleaned-up scores” won’t be a valid measure of Prop. 227’s effectiveness because the Stanford 9 was not designed to assess the performance of English learners.

It’s also unwise, she said, to draw conclusions based on one year of results without much information about the kinds of programs the children have been in.

Peter Roos, co-director of a San Francisco-based group that supports bilingual education, said he won’t be surprised if the accurate results show improvement, but he said it will be years before Prop. 227 can be judged.

“The real test should be whether the kids are making it into the mainstream and are able to compete and able to be distributed across the board in the same way that native English-speaking kids are,” he said. “Ultimately that’s going to have to be the measure of whether this is succeeding.”

Register staff writer John Gittelsohn contributed to this report.

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