Despite fears that limited-English speakers would be hurt by a statewide initiative banning bilingual education, test scores from a Southern California district that closely adhered to Prop. 227 have nearly doubled in the months since it took effect.
"These scores are a great way to end the school year," said Cindy Sabato, a public information officer for the Oceanside Unified School District. "It’s been very difficult year; there’s been a lot of frustration structuring the English immersion program. It’s such a joy to share what a wonderful job they did."
Some 4,500 limited-English speakers, most of whom speak Spanish, took the SAT-9 after seven months of English immersion, as required by the voter-approved initiative. Figures released this month showed math scores up by an average of 120 percent and reading scores up by 180 percent, officials said.
"We double-checked and double-checked and double-checked," Sabato said. "We couldn’t believe it ourselves."
Math scores for limited-English speaking ninth graders jumped 157 percent, and science scores for limited-English speaking juniors were up 271 percent. Still, most scores still fell short of national averages: While limited-English speaking seventh graders, for example, enjoyed a 475 percent gain in reading scores, those figures increased from only the fourth percentile to the 23rd percentile.
The man who spearheaded the initiative, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, pointed to Oceanside’s scores as evidence that the mandate works — when given a chance. "I am surprised the results were that strong, but I don’t expect other districts’ scores to show that much improvement," he said. "Other districts have been dragging their feet and have avoided implementing changes. Because of that, I expect other test scores to be much lower than Oceanside’s."
In Southern California’s Oxnard and Pomona districts, about 90 percent of the parents with limited English speaking children have chosen to keep them in bilingual classrooms. But in Los Angeles, only 4 percent of parents with kids in bilingual-ed petitioned to keep them there last fall.
An Alameda County Superior Court judge concurred with the challenge that Berkeley, Hayward, and Oakland filed against Prop. 227, but a state appeal has yet to be decided. San Francisco and San Jose have argued that federal consent decrees preclude them from Prop. 227, but both now require parents to sign authorizations to continue their kids in bilingual education. According to SFUSD spokeswoman Sandina Robbins, the number of students in bilingual education — about 20,000 — has remained about the same in the seven months since Prop. 227 passed.
Unlike those districts, Oceanside did not fight the mandate, and it granted virtually no parental waivers. Instead, the district mandated that 98 percent of instruction be in English and it followed the initiative’s edict to put former bilingual-ed students into a year-long English immersion program. It tested students to decide who would go into mainstream classes and who would continue in English immersion.
"We interpreted 227 conservatively," Sabato explained. "Instructors used visual aids and hand gestures, and only after that was done did they speak Spanish."
Oceanside Superintendent Ken Noonan voted against Prop. 227 a year ago because he believed there should be a "middle ground between the bilingual program and Prop. 227," Sabato said. Yet "every time he walked into an English immersion classroom he was more convinced it was the right way to go."
The State Department of Education remains cautious about drawing any conclusions from the results pending its own analysis of the scores, expected this summer. But David Ramirez, an education professor at California State University at Long Beach, expressed skepticism about the gains.
"A five point gain is statistically significant; a 100 percent gain is unheard of," said Ramirez, who also serves as executive director of the Center for Minority Education. "Such an astronomical change — it’s impossible unless it’s a rock and all of a sudden woke up."
Even if true, he said, the increased scores might not reflect that a youngster is on the same level as his native-English speaking classmates. "The question to ask is are they making enough improvement to catch up with their [English speaking] peers in one year?"
Ramirez said a statewide survey he conducted found that most Latino parents wanted their children to develop both English and Spanish-language skills, a view similar to that of Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce member Carl Chin.
In the global age, Chin said, speaking two languages is imperative. "The education system is not spending emphasis on foreign language," he said. "It is essential. … Let’s start with bilingual education."
If such programs were run with adequate funding and training, they would show results, Chin said. "The whole school system needs improvement. We need resources in funding to hire better qualified teachers so that we can run better bilingual programs."
He and Ramirez point to recent San Francisco scores showing graduates of bilingual-ed programs outscoring native-English speakers prove their contention. Their third graders who went through bilingual programs outscored native English speakers by 40 percentage points in math and eighth-graders who graduated from bilingual programs scored nine percentage points higher than the native English speaking students. Unz, however, said that those tested were already out of bilingual education and that the district exempts many of those still in such programs.
"There is no evidence bilingual education has ever worked on a large scale in 30 years," Unz said. "Some small districts or individual schools have had success, but there is no evidence it works on a large scale, and it is not used anywhere in the world."
Bilingual-ed proponents have also worried that students in English immersion programs will fall behind in other subjects and that teachers may "dumb down" the curriculum in response.
"Studies have shown if you fall two or more years behind in content areas, you will probably never catch up," Ramirez warned. "You end up with social English language ability. You can chit-chat about movies, television. But in terms of more complex language you need for classroom learning, the probability of attaining that plummets."
But Noonan said that hasn’t happened in Oceanside. "We have teachers who have been afraid of our higher standards, afraid that students with limited English proficiency would fall further behind, worried about trying to do too much too fast," he said in a written statement. "But these same teachers stuck with us, worked hard for their students and have seen our students succeed."