OCEANSIDE, Calif.—In an achievement being touted as evidence of success of a statewide ban on bilingual education, the Oceanside school district has posted scores showing dramatic improvements among immigrant pupils in reading, language arts and other academic areas since switching to an English-immersion curriculum last fall.
The Oceanside Unified School District, which is near San Diego, is believed to be the only school system in the state making the most literal interpretation of California’s controversial anti-bilingual education law by dropping all non-English instruction for immigrant students. Most other districts use a provision of the law that allows individual schools to seek waivers if enough parents determine that bilingual education would be best for their children.
On the most recent SAT-9, reading scores rose 56 percent for 3rd graders and 475 percent for 7th graders. While citing a new back-to-basics curriculum and new standards, district officials largely attribute the gains to their shift to English instruction.
Nearly a year after California’s 1,000 public school districts began implementing the nation’s first anti-bilingual education law, proponents and opponents of Proposition 227 are looking for evidence to justify their positions.
On Capitol Hill lawmakers also are looking at the California experiment as they conduct hearings on whether to continue funding the 30-year federal bilingual program.
California’s first-year test results, due to be released Wednesday for all school districts, are unlikely to end the national debate over bilingual education.
Though some other school districts have reported a boost in immigrant test scores, the statewide picture is murky because of the wide variation in how schools within even a single district have implemented the law.
Thus, to some, Oceanside offers the cleanest, if not clearest, look into whether English immersion is better than bilingual education. “Originally, I thought 227 was too extreme. There wasn’t a lot of evidence it would work,” said Oceanside Supt. Kenneth Noonan, a former bilingual teacher and first president of the California Association for Bilingual Education.
“The results speak for themselves,” he added. “This is not news the bilingual industry is interested in hearing.”
Though the gains are sparking nationwide attention, Oceanside’s pupils with limited English skills still scored well below the 50th percentile on the standardized test.
Moreover, the improvement has not convinced bilingual education’s advocates. “It’s a completely flawed assessment tool for limited-English students. It is designed to assess English speakers on content areas,” said Elena Soto-Chapa, statewide education director of the California chapter of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“The scores went up for myriad reasons: The state has put an emphasis on test-taking skills; the state has allocated more money for class-size reduction; and Oceanside has had a back-to-basics approach,” she said. “It’s all part of a package. You can’t look at (Proposition 227) in a vacuum.”
Oceanside officials respond that the test results showed sharper increases for English learners–pupils not yet proficient in English–than for other pupils who were included in last year’s non-bilingual educational reforms, such as phonics-based reading instruction.
“If you think about it, increasing student achievement is a very complex condition,” said Joseph Farley, an associate superintendent in the Oceanside school district. The former principal of Mission Elementary School, Farley testified before the Early Childhood, Youth and Families Subcommittee of the House Education Committee last week concerning federal funding for special-education programs, including bilingual education.
“I’m sure English-only instruction, when the test is in English, is a significant factor,” he said.
“It’s going to be hard to attribute any changes to any one program,” said Doug Stone, director of communications for the California Education Department.
“It’s still premature to declare a knockout, that it (the score improvement) is just simply based on Proposition 227,” he said, adding that “impartial” analysis of the data is needed.
Nonetheless, opponents of bilingual education across the nation took note of the results, interpreting them as a broad indictment.
“Bilingual education never worked, and Oceanside proves it,” said Jim Boulet Jr., executive director of English First, a Washington-based organization opposed to bilingual education.
“The scores undermine everything the anti-English lobby has been saying for 30 years,” he added. “Any child given the chance to learn English early will generally do well.”
In California, Oceanside’s results are touching off another controversy over administering standardized tests to limited-English-skills students.
For years, California schools could decide for themselves whether to administer standardized tests to English learners. Many schools opted out, saying the limited-English students were still learning the language and were not ready for the tests. Many administrators also felt that the bilingual students would depress their schools’ scores.
However, former Gov. Pete Wilson directed schools to test all students, a mandate that went into effect the 1997-98 school year. Some school districts, including the San Francisco Unified School District, have defied state orders and refused to give the test to limited-English students.
With questions about whether the SAT-9 test can adequately gauge the abilities of students with limited English, the California Education Department next year plans to pilot an achievement test aimed specifically at English learners. The test will assess how well they are grasping academic concepts and mastering English.
Located north of San Diego, the Oceanside Unified School District has 22,000 students, 5,000 of whom are classified as limited-English proficient.
During the 1997-98 school year, the district had 120 bilingual classes; in the 1998-99 school year, the district offered not one, initially prompting some teachers to consider quitting.
The district requires teachers to use English, pictures and pantomimes to convey their lessons. The teachers can resort to the pupils’ native language for a quick interpretation only if all else fails.
According to the district, English learners showed a vast improvement on the SAT-9 after switching to English immersion. In math, scores rose 86 percent for 3rd graders and 155 percent for 7th graders.
Reading scores for English learners overall rose 100 percent. Tenth-grade reading jumped 450 percent and 7th grade reading climbed 475 percent.
Before Proposition 227, the district’s English learners scored in the 18th percentile and below. After implementing the law, the pupils scored in the 11th to 39th percentiles.
Oceanside’s scores “don’t answer the question of whether students do better without bilingual education,” said Richard Brown, project director of the National Center for Research, Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA. “But it may compel more research and efforts to look deeper at what they’re doing.”
Luz Meza, who has taught at Mission Elementary School in Oceanside for two years, was surprised by the test results.
She can’t explain why the pupils improved so much, saying that the results indicate merits with the English-immersion and old bilingual-education approaches.
“Since the test was in English, teaching in English all year was a definite benefit,” Meza said.
Still, she added, “I had two kids this year who just came from Mexico and knew no English. The kids who had (bilingual education) last year made the transition better.”
Tribune correspondent Karen Brandon contributed to this report.