English learners show gains as state releases more figures

SACRAMENTO—Two years after voters ended most bilingual education in California, statewide test scores for non-English speakers jumped about as much as scores for their fluent fellow students.

New test scores released being Tuesday by the state Department of Education provide more details of how well California’s public school students did on their third taking of the Standardized Testing and Reporting exam.

The state one month ago released scores for all students and followed that Tuesday with scores that include breakdowns for limited-English students.

Opponents of bilingual education say the improved scores prove the success of Proposition 227, which required teaching to be “overwhelmingly” in English for immigrant children. But education experts say the statewide test is not a good measure of whether immigrant children are learning English.

The STAR test is taken by public school students in second-through-11th grades. It is the basis for Gov. Gray Davis’ high-stakes school improvement program that includes monetary rewards for schools and teachers when scores go up and eligibility for a three-year improvement program when they do not.

“These scores indicate that our focus on improved academic achievement is taking hold for all groups of students,” Davis said Monday. “We still have a long way to go.”

The overall results for 4.7 million students showed increases of several percentage points in nearly every grade and subject, with the largest improvements in the lowest grades, particularly second and third.

However, scores remained below the national average for reading for all grades.

Without counting the scores for nearly 1 million students who aren’t proficient in English, the remaining English-fluent students were above the national average in reading for all grades except high school, and in math for all grades.

State school Superintendent Delaine Eastin said Tuesday’s figures provide a better comparison to other states, since the national sample only has 1.8 percent of students who are English learners while California has about 25 percent.

“Not surprisingly, the STAR results show that it is difficult for students to do well in academic content areas until they are proficient in English,” she said.

As expected, the students who aren’t proficient in English scored well below the national average in all areas, but their scores improved over the 1999 and 1998 levels.

In reading, for example, 25 percent of the second-graders scored at or above the national average, compared to 19 percent in 1999 and 15 percent in 1998.

In math, 37 percent of third-graders were at or above the national average, compared with 28 percent in 1999 and 21 percent in 1998.

“I’m certainly encouraged,” said Ron Unz, the software millionaire who put Proposition 227 on the ballot. It was approved by 61 percent of the voters in June 1998.

Parents and students can obtain waivers allowing them to remain in bilingual classes and learn English and other subjects in their native language.

Limited-English students also can get a waiver from the required STAR test. State education officials say they don’t know how many parents obtained such waivers.

However, Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University, says the STAR test, being a standardized test written for native English speakers, is not a good measurement of whether immigrant children are learning English. The state is in the process of developing a new test aimed at doing just that.

“I don’t think they (the scores) tell us anything, nor will they ever,” Hakuta said.

Opponents of Proposition 227 claimed that forcing students to be taught in English instead of their native languages would hurt them academically in other subjects.

Unz said the latest scores show the opposite occurred

“Test scores for immigrant students in math have risen even more dramatically than other test scores,” he said.

Districts that have followed Proposition 227 exactly, such as Oceanside Unified in San Diego County, have the strongest increases in test scores for their immigrant children, Unz said.

Oceanside teaches its 5,253 limited-English students in “structured immersion” classes, where almost all instruction in all subjects is in English.

In reading, 18 percent of its second-graders were at or above the national average in 1999. That rose to 28 percent this year.

Oceanside Superintendent Ken Noonan calls Proposition 227 “the catalyst for our district.”

Without the change in the law, he said, “we would not have learned how quickly and how well kids can learn English, not just speaking it but being able to read and write it as well.”

Noonan also attributes the improvement to class-size reduction in first and second grades and the district’s move three years ago to phonics-based reading instruction.

A former bilingual education teacher and administrator, Noonan said he and teachers at the school were skeptical at first, but “it has really paid off. These kids have just taken off.”

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