State test scores jump in Oceanside

District gives credit to English-only instruction

OCEANSIDE — In one of the state’s first report cards on Proposition 227, the test scores of Oceanside’s non- English-speaking students have skyrocketed after their first year of English-only instruction.

Data released by Oceanside yesterday shows the scores of its English-language learners increased dramatically in every subject at every grade level tested. The figures are among the earliest empirical data to contrast pre-and post-Proposition 227 test scores.

“I think Oceanside is a tremendous example of Proposition 227’s success when it is actively implemented,” said Ron Unz, the author of the initiative that abolished most bilingual education programs.

“All along we’ve expected Oceanside to be one of the best tests of our initiative because they’ve gone the furthest in complying with Proposition 227.”

School districts are just beginning to receive scores from the Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition, also known as SAT 9. The tests were administered in April and May to 4.2 million second-through 11th- graders to assess how much they have learned this year in reading, math, language, spelling, social studies and science.

Oceanside is among the first districts to release its scores. The California Department of Education is due to post the scores of every public school in the state on the Internet by June 30.

Oceanside’s national percentile rank scores show how well students at each grade level scored compared to a national sample. For example, Oceanside’s seventh- grade English learners scored in the 4th percentile last year in reading, meaning they scored as well as or better than only 4 percent of the national sample. This year’s seventh-grade English learners scored in the 23rd percentile, a 475 percent increase over last year. The aggressive implementation of Proposition 227 in the Oceanside Unified School District has been watched closely by both supporters and opponents of bilingual education, and has received attention in the national education press.

Many districts across the state have kept thousands of students in native-language classes, particularly in Spanish, through a clause in the proposition that allows parents to request an exemption for their children.

About one-fifth of Oceanside’s 22,000 students are non- English-speakers. The district has received 155 exemption requests. It denied 150 and approved five. Even those five, though, are in sheltered English instruction, virtually all-English teaching that emphasizes vocabulary and visual techniques to aid comprehension.

A district does not have to offer a bilingual alternative unless 20 students in one grade level at one school receive exemption from the law.

Even with the improved scores, Oceanside’s English- language learners still performed far below the average of the national sample, only 2 percent of which was English-language learners. About 22 percent of the county’s public school students are English-language learners. Some 1.4 million students, about one-quarter of the state’s public school enrollment, are non-English- speakers.

State voters passed Proposition 227 last year after three decades of bilingual education, in which students were taught in their native language during a gradual transition into English. Many thought the transition, in some cases up to seven years, was too long. Spanish-speaking parents have picketed outside board meetings to protest Oceanside’s scrapping of bilingual education.

The test results, which showed less dramatic but consistent improvement for English speakers, too, have vindicated the district’s direction, Oceanside Superintendent Ken Noonan said.

“They have shown first of all that our interpretation of 227 did not hurt them. It helped them,” Noonan said. “The English-language learners can learn English much more quickly, much more rapidly than we believed.”

The scores come with a host of caveats, namely that Proposition 227 is not the only recent change in this reform-minded district.

In Noonan’s two years, the Oceanside schools have retooled their curriculum with a back-to-basics focus emphasizing reading, writing and math. Oceanside schools also emphasized phonics, spelling and grammar in English classes, and adopted new textbooks. A ninth- grade academy opened in August to help students who had not met district standards in eighth grade last year.

Individual schools also have implemented changes. Ron Martino, who teaches science and math to English learners at Lincoln Middle School in Oceanside, said his students have benefited from a new after-school tutoring program this year. Lincoln also started a new intensive English-language development class. Increased testing, too, perhaps made Lincoln students more adept at test taking and helped teachers better diagnose pupils’ strengths and weaknesses.

One state official speculated that improved scores could make a case in favor of bilingual education.

“Our suspicion in the state is that, yes, many (non- English-speaking) students are going to do well on the SAT 9 because they’ve been in a good (bilingual) program,” said Maria Trejo, a language expert with the California Department of Education. In Oceanside, the most marked improvements were in the higher grades, though it is unknown how long those students had spent in bilingual programs before this year. Testing experts also question the validity of comparing this year’s third-graders, for example, with last year’s third-graders, since they could be two vastly different groups demographically and intellectually. This apples- to-oranges conundrum could be complicated further by Oceanside’s historically high student turnover rate, fueled in part by the proximity of Camp Pendleton and the presence of the children of migrant farm workers.

State Department of Education spokesman Doug Stone cautioned against reading too much into the Oceanside scores right away. The state will do analyses this summer. “I would say that it makes sense when students are involved in intensive English instruction, their chances of doing better on a test in English are going to increase,” Stone said.

Noonan declared Oceanside scores would be among the highest in the state in a few years and that the latest data from the English-language learners marked a good beginning.

“I think the evidence is in that we’re on the right track, that we’re doing the right thing,” Noonan said.

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