'Fluency' open to fluid interpretation

EDUCATION: And that's just one of the subjective aspects Prop. 227 didn't address.

Proposition 227 restricted how children should be taught to speak, read and write English, but the initiative left many challenges for California’s massive limited-English population.

California is still developing a good definition of what it means to be fluent in English ? and how long it should take to get there.

“We should ask the legislature to clarify what’s a reasonable amount of time to redesignate a student from limited English to proficient,” state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin said. “I believe a period of two or three years is a reasonable amount of time.”

Prop. 227 recommends that most students be placed in regular classrooms after a year of special English-immersion instruction.

Only about 6 percent of California’s 1.4 million limited-English students are reclassified as fluent each year, based on a combination of standardized test-score norms and written and oral tests. On the Stanford 9 tests, most districts require a score above about the 35th percentile ? better than one-third of all test takers ? to be considered fluent.

In July, the state Board of Education approved California’s first statewide grade-by-grade standards for limited-English students. The standards will be the basis of a new test, to be given by spring 2001, to assess how students are progressing toward fluency.

Student fluency will be rated from “beginning” to “advanced.” Beginners would be able to answer basic questions with a “yes” or “no.” Advanced students would understand and use “idioms, analogies and metaphors in conversation and written text.”

A state Superior Court judge in San Francisco ruled last year that Stanford 9 test scores cannot be used to evaluate limited-English students for purposes of promotion or retention, but most California schools still required those students to take the tests, along with everyone else in grades 2-11.

A proposed law would exempt all limited-English students who have been taught in English for less than 24 months from taking the Stanford 9.

No one knows how many students would be excluded. One indicator: This year, 24,000 students took a Spanish-language counterpart to the Stanford 9 offered to limited-English students who attended California schools less than 12 months. In Spanish reading, the students scored above the national average in six of the 10 grades that took the tests.

The exemption bill’s author, Assemblywoman Carol Migden, D-San Francisco, argues that it is unfair to test students in a language they don’t understand.

Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Santa Ana teacher who co-chaired the Prop. 227 campaign, said exempting limited-English students from the Stanford 9 would exempt schools from being accountable for the progress of those students.

“How are your going to know where kids are if you don’t test them?” she asked.

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