Glitch on Prop. 227 Road?

Fluency comes slowly for bilingual students in certain English-only programs.

Orange County school districts that led the statewide push to end bilingual education saw a drop in the number of students who were reclassified as fluent in English this year, an Orange County Register analysis has found.

The decline in those districts contrasts with a countywide increase in the so-called redesignation rate, which measures the number of students reclassified each year from limited English to fluent.

Countywide, about 9,300 students were redesignated as fluent this year – about 6.5 percent of the total of about 142,000 limited English students. That’s up from 6 percent last year, according to an annual census of limited-Engish students. Statewide, 7 percent of the 1.4 million limited English students were redesignated as fluent last year.

The new countywide figures come too soon to reflect the full effect of Proposition 227, last year’s voter-approved initiative that requires almost all instruction in English, educators said.

During last year’s campaign, Prop. 227 proponents cited California’s low redesignation rate as evidence of the failure of bilingual education. But bilingual education advocates say the falling redesignation rate in districts that received English-only instruction waivers before 227 could be an omen of the law’s negative impact.

The Westminster School District received a waiver from California’s bilingual regulations in 1996, allowing instruction of English learners in English instead of their native language. This year, Westminster’s redesignation rate plunged to about 2.5 percent, from 7.2 percent in 1998.

Only 106 of Westminster’s 4,400 limited-English students qualified as fluent this year, down from 303 students a year ago. District officials had hoped redesignation numbers would exceed 400 students this year.

“This is not a good redesignation rate,” Westminster Superintendent Barbara DeHart said. “We’re going to find out why and do something about it.”

Dips in redesignation rates occurred in Orange Unified, Magnolia and Savanna school districts, which received bilingual instruction waivers in 1997.

Maria Quezada, president of the California Association for Bilingual Education, likened the English immersion programs to baking bread at a high temperature: The crust gets brown faster, but the inside remains doughy.

“(Students) look and sound like they understand everything but when given a test of higher levels of thinking, they don’t get it,” said Quezada, of Rancho Santa Margarita, who teaches education at California State University, Long Beach.

But Gloria Matta Tuchman, Prop. 227 co-author and a Santa Ana first-grade teacher, blames the low redesignation rate on excessive requirements.

To qualify as fluent in most school districts, students must score above the 35th percentile in reading, math and language on Stanford 9 standardized tests. That means about one-third of students could never qualify as English proficient, because the test scores are based on a curve.

Redesignated students must also pass writing tests, which educators say would even challenge students whose first language is English.

“The criteria for these kids to be redesignated isn’t realistic,” Tuchman said. “It’s setting them up for failure.”

Officials in districts with falling redesignation rates gave several other reasons for their students’ slow climb to fluency.

Westminster’s DeHart noted that some schools in her district filed their paperwork late. If all qualified students had been counted, the district’s redesignation rate would climb this year to 4.2 percent, she said.

School districts that performed the right paperwork – Anaheim Elementary and Capistrano Unified, for example – showed steep climbs in their redesignation rates.

But in Westminster, raising test scores and adjusting classroom curriculums to meet state standards have taken precedence over the time-consuming process of assessing students to meet fluency goals, DeHart said. A more accurate measure of progress than redesignation will be the scores of limited-English students on this year’s Stanford 9 tests, due in late June, school officials elsewhere said.

“Redesignation rates get too much publicity,” said Neil McKinnon, assistant superintendent in Orange Unified, where the redesignation rate slumped to 5.2 percent from 6.5 percent.

But many educators say accepting less than full fluency as a goal shortchanges the education of limited-English students – whether the students are taught in English or Spanish.

“They need so many things in place to be redesignated – more skills verbally, written and cognitive,” said Linda Bell, principal of Santiago Elementary in Santa Ana. “I think redesignation is important.”

Santiago doubled its redesignation rate to 10 percent this year, partly, Bell said, because the school switched to English-only instruction after Prop. 227. But Bell and her teachers said accelerating English acquisition is more complex than just teaching kids in English.

Other factors include:

Making fluency a school priority. A full-time teacher is dedicated to test students and keep records needed to move up the fluency ladder.

Santiago’s teaching staff is experienced – half have master’s degrees and two have doctorates – and trained to deal with limited- English students.

The school’s reading series, Open Court, couples explicit lessons in phonics, spelling and comprehension with entertaining stories.

“It’s not ‘Dick and Jane’ vocabulary,” said teacher Carolyn Alex, most of whose 20 first-graders were taught in Spanish last year. “It’s hard.”

Most of Alex’s students can now read English and write complex words such as “picture,” “nature” and “mixture.”

“They should be ready to be redesignated in two or three years,” said Alex, a teacher since 1965.

Other helpful factors are beyond a school’s control. Most kids attend Santiago from kindergarten to fifth grade, while other schools with large limited-English populations experience high rates of transiency that make it hard to provide a good education.

More than half of Santiago students speak fluent English when they start school, giving English learners more opportunity – and necessity – to use their new language.

Last year, Santiago students scored above average on Spanish- language tests, indicating a strong academic foundation in their native language that can carry over to English learning. Still, teachers believe their students’ success will continue as their new programs take effect.

“This is the age to get them, the best time to learn English,” Alex said. “I can hardly wait until next year.”

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