Fluent English a Big Factor In Student Scores

Statewide school tests show achievement gap

One year after California voters approved an initiative requiring students to be taught only in English, children not fluent in the language still lag far behind their peers in academic achievement, test results released yesterday show.

Students with limited English skills scored generally in the teens and 20s on a scale of 1 to 99 in reading, language, mathematics, spelling, science and social science on the state’s Stanford 9 exam. By contrast, scores for fluent English speakers hovered around the national average of 50.

The scores were released yesterday for every California school and district, along with statewide scores broken out by English fluency.

“It is imperative that every kid learn to achieve in English, especially since they’re being tested in English,” state Superintendent Delaine Eastin said yesterday.

However, there is little evidence that passage last year of Proposition 227, mandating the English-only classes, has made a dent in the achievement of students who speak limited English, she said.

“They’re not moving up dramatically higher,” Eastin said. “It’s too early to celebrate or throw stones.”

But Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who led the Proposition 227 campaign, saw a bright picture. Instead of looking at how well students performed on the test, he looked at improvement since last year — and declared victory.

Although scores are reported grade by grade, Unz, to reach his conclusion, combined the numbers for each elementary grade in all subjects and concluded that limited- English speakers had made a 19 percent gain since last year (to an average of 23.2 points from 19.5). He compared that with a 9 percent gain among all test-takers, including limited-English speakers (to 44.4 points from 40.8).

“Increasing test scores of immigrant students by 19 percent in seven months is unprecedented in American education reforms,” Unz said. “If (Proposition) 227 didn’t do it, it’s amazing how it all happened.”

Across the state, 904,621 students with limited English skills took the exam in English this spring. They represented about one-fifth of the 4.3 million students in second through 11th grades who took the exam. It was the second year the test had been given.

Statewide results were made public June 30, but errors by the testing company, Harcourt Educational Measurement, delayed the release of the rest of the data until yesterday.

Reading clearly was the most difficult subject for children who speak little English, ranging from a high of 23 for second-graders to a low of 9 for high school sophomores. In writing — identified as “language” on the state’s report — and math, scores were mainly in the mid-20s. That means that on average the students performed better than 25 percent or so of students nationwide in those subjects.

Among fluent English speakers, math and writing scores generally were in the high 50s in most grades.

The scores also showed a wide achievement gap among large Bay Area school districts — even when scores of limited-English speakers were set aside.

Belying the poor reputation of California’s large school districts were Mount Diablo, Novato and Berkeley. San Francisco’s scores also were above average in most subjects, but the district tested only students who speak English fluently or who have had at least three years of English language instruction.

By law, districts must test all students in English. Last year, however, San Francisco sued the state and won the right to exclude non-English speakers from taking the 1998 exam. The district decided to exclude those students again this year, holding out 4,000 students who, in other districts, would have been tested.

This year, Oakland quietly became the second district to exclude non-English speakers from taking the test.

Nevertheless, scores for Oakland, along with West Contra Costa and San Jose, were below average in most subjects and grades. San Jose’s scores rose above average when the results of limited-English speakers were set aside.

The Mount Diablo school district was one of the Bay Area’s better-performing districts. Most students scored above the national average in every subject.

In a working-class neighborhood in Pleasant Hill, students at Sequoia Middle School tested in the 75th percentile in math, reading and spelling.

“We aren’t a school with a bunch of doctors and lawyers as parents; we’re simply a school that focuses on academics and parent support,” Principal Jim Durflinger said.

The school has a solid reputation for teaching children how to apply basic math and reading concepts to everyday life. They learn to calculate 15 percent tips, and a class for gifted students designed a bridge last year.

In the Berkeley district, all students were tested no matter how well they spoke English. But the district will not put scores of the limited-English speakers in student files, district spokeswoman Karen Sarlo said.

“We had kids from Russia who had only been in this country a week who had to take the test,” Sarlo said.

In Oakland about a third of the 54,000 students are not fluent in English, but they did not all have to take the test. School officials excused students who had lived in the United States less than 30 months. Even so, Oakland’s scores were still some of the lowest in the Bay Area. The typical score for a sixth-grader in Oakland was 33 in math, 29 in spelling and 28 in reading.

“We’re not where we want to be,” said Joe Coats, principal of Lowell Middle School. “We need more focus and direction and the children need more stability in their every day lives.”

Complete test results can be found on the Internet at

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