FULLERTON, Calif. _ Betty Othmer wasn’t surprised that her Spanish-speaking students’ test scores improved this year, because they’ve been taught almost exclusively in English.
“If I’d been taught in one language and tested in another, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see scores aren’t going to be very good,” said Othmer, a second-grade teacher at Richman Elementary School.
Reading scores among second-graders at Richman climbed to the 21st percentile from the 15th percentile last year.
Critics of bilingual education cite such gains as evidence that English-only instruction is a success.
“I think you can make a case that Proposition 227 is the most rapidly successful education reform in history,” said Ron Unz, co-author of the state ballot measure that ended most bilingual instruction.
Reports of higher scores among students with limited proficiency in English are trickling in from around California before Wednesday’s publication date for all state scores.
Limited-English students in Oceanside Unified in San Diego doubled and quadrupled their reading scores, Unz said. In second grade, they jumped from the 12th percentile to the 24th percentile. In fifth grade, they went from the 6th percentile to the 20th percentile. The 50th percentile is average.
Also bolstering Unz’s case are reports from schools that kept bilingual programs. Second-grade reading scores fell at Rio Vista and Topaz elementary schools in Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified, where hundreds of parents signed waivers to keep their kids in bilingual classes.
But Unz also plays with statistics to build his case, saying, for example, that a gain from the 10th percentile to the 25th percentile represents a 150 percent increase. In fact, the actual improvement in scores is less dramatic.
To score at the 10th percentile in second-grade reading, for example, students must answer 43 of 118 questions correctly. To score at the 25th percentile, they need 57 right.
In other words, a 33 percent increase in the number of correct answers yields a 150 percent gain in percentile points.
Most educators take a more cautious approach to test gains. Scores often rise in the second year of a test as students and teachers become more familiar with the format and content. Better teacher training, new textbooks and class-size reduction could also boost scores.
“Because the scores for limited-English and fluent-English students are all up, I’d think there are other things going on as well,” said Phil Morse, administrator for research in Orange Unified School District.
Measures other than test scores raise questions about English immersion. The rate of students being reclassified from limited English to fluent English declined this year in Westminster, Magnolia and Orange Unified, which pioneered English-only instruction.
Othmer said banning Spanish instruction hurts newcomers, who need help understanding the most basic ideas and vocabulary. But she also conceded that her second-graders who had spent the year studying in English were ready to take the kind of tests they’ll face later in school _ and life.
“They had a much higher confidence level,” she said. “They hung in there. You could see the gray matter churning.”