SANTA ANA, Calif. _ The number of Orange County students declared fluent in English is down slightly, according to the state’s annual survey of students who come to school speaking another language, two years after Proposition 227 all but ended bilingual education in California.

The county rate of 6.7 percent trails the state average of 7.8 percent. But districts say it’s hard to draw conclusions from those numbers because of vague rules that allow each to define for themselves what it means to be fluent and who has the skills to compete equally in the classroom with English speakers. A new statewide exam starting this week may offer some help.

“I don’t know what’s good or bad,” said Richard Diaz, a manager in the California Department of Education standards and assessment office. “Given the influx of students, maybe 7 percent is good.”

Prop. 227’s emotional debate ended in mid-1998 with 61 percent of California voters agreeing that classes should be taught only in English unless parents signed a waiver to keep their students in bilingual classes. Proponents argued that bilingual education had failed the children it was meant to help, while opponents said the initiative’s goal of moving all kids into mainstream English-only classes after one year was unrealistic.

But while the state has spent much of the last two years using tools like the Stanford 9 standardized test to measure student progress, it has set only loose guidelines for determining when a child has learned enough English to be fluent. Policies vary so much that a child could be ruled fluent in one district but not in another.

Different measuring sticks make it difficult to compare how programs are working.

Garden Grove Unified, for instance, which immerses all non-fluent students in English, has a lower reclassification rate than Santa Ana, where 6,000 of the 58,000 students are in bilingual classes on parental waivers. Westminster School District, which ended bilingual education in 1996, two years before Proposition 227 passed, saw its rate leap to 12.2 percent from a disappointing 2.5 percent the previous year.

Rates in Orange Unified and Savanna_which ended bilingual education in 1997 _ made steady gains.

Districts such as Anaheim City set their own goals_to make about 10 percent of students fluent in English each year, a goal it just missed_but others are pleading with the state for guidance.

“I’ve got calls into the state to say, ‘Help me, help me,’ ” said Howard Bryan, director of bilingual programs and English language development in Santa Ana, which reclassified 2,177 of 39,000 English learners last school year. “I still don’t know what is considered good progress.”

The state is attempting to bring some uniformity to the process statewide by creating a test for English learners. Starting this week, about 20,000 students statewide _ including students in 32 Orange County schools _ began piloting the English Language Development test, based on state standards for teaching English learners passed last year.

The new test will be used as early as this spring as the sole test of children’s oral, reading and writing skills in English. Now, districts can choose between one of four English tests.

“The whole point of this is to try to kind of get something consistent throughout the whole state,” Diaz said.

But even after that new test is developed, districts will still have leeway on the three other measures required to determine English fluency: teacher evaluations, parents’ approval and an exam that compares limited-English children with fluent speakers. Most districts use the Stanford 9, which is required in grades 2-11, to measure limited-English students against their peers, but districts can pick their own tests.

Some observers say the flat rate of fluency here casts doubt on claims that immersing students in English will help them learn more quickly. Teachers say it still takes three to seven years to become fluent, disputing Proposition 227 proponents’ claims that students could catch up in a year.

“If they were expecting overnight dramatic results, they were probably a little naive,” said Pam Ellis, program evaluation director in Anaheim City.

On the other hand, Prop. 227 proponents say that the dramatic increase in Stanford 9 scores supports their argument that English-immersion instruction is helping children. Silicon Valley millionaire Ron Unz, who co-authored the proposition with Gloria Matta Tuchman _ a first-grade teacher in Santa Ana who is running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives _ said the fluency rates are “meaningless” because the criteria for fluency varies by district.

Some say it is difficult to pin either the success or failure of a school’s fluency rate on Prop. 227 since schools have undergone so many changes in the past several years: lowering class sizes to 20 to 1 in kindergarten through third grade; increasing after-school programs; and following the state’s high-stakes accountability system that rewards, or punishes, schools based on their test scores.

And schools say they gauge their success on more than the fluency rate. At Whittier Elementary School in Costa Mesa, for example, none of the students became fluent in English last year, but the school only goes up to third grade. More than 90 percent of the students there are still learning English.

If it takes up to three years to learn the language, officials say they might trace their efforts at a school Whittier feeds, Rea Elementary, where 15 percent of students were reclassified as fluent, nearly double the rate last year.

“It takes a few years to be fluent in a language, regardless of age,” said Rea Principal Ken Killian.

Schools say they try to treat students individually. Some arrive illiterate in any language, while others already are familiar with reading and writing in their native language, usually Spanish. Some are poor and lack books at home; others have parents who, like them, are still learning English.

Whittier Elementary, for example, has full-day kindergarten to expose students to English early, plus after-school programs. Rea, which has fourth- through sixth-graders, has teachers at each grade level who are experts in helping English learners.

District officials say the numbers can be misleading because the survey is taken before the school year ends. Centralia, for example, reclassified a total of 60 students _ far more than the 23 listed on the survey _ by the end of the year, officials said.

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