Test Scores Rise, Surprising Critics of Bilingual Ban

Gains by California Students Expected to Have an Effect Beyond State's Schools

OCEANSIDE, Calif., Aug. 17 — Two years after Californians voted to end bilingual education and force a million Spanish-speaking students to immerse themselves in English as if it were a cold bath, those students are improving in reading and other subjects at often striking rates, according to standardized test scores released this week.

Many educators had predicted catastrophe if bilingual classes were dismantled in this state, which is home to one of every 10 of the nation’s public school children, many of them native Spanish speakers. But the prophecies have not materialized.

In second grade, for example, the average score in reading of a student classified as limited in English increased 9 percentage points over the last two years, to the 28th percentile from the 19th percentile in national rankings, according to the state. In mathematics, the increase in the average score for the same students was 14 points, to the 41st percentile from the 27th.

The results, which represent the first effort to measure the new law’s effects, are expected to reach beyond California’s borders, most immediately in Arizona, where voters will be presented with a ballot initiative in November asking them whether the state should outlaw bilingual education . The California test scores are also expected to influence Colorado, where a similar measure narrowly missed getting on the ballot this fall, and in Massachusetts and New York, where antibilingual forces are marshaling.

It is too early to know precisely how much the erasure of bilingual education contributed to the rising scores — class sizes in the second grade have also been reduced over the same period, for example — but the results are remarkable given predictions that scores of Spanish-speaking students would plummet.

Consider the experience of Ken Noonan, who likened the change in his position on bilingual education over the last two years to a religious conversion. Mr. Noonan, who founded the California Association of Bilingual Educators 30 years ago and who is now the school superintendent in this city 35 miles north of San Diego, was among those who warned in 1998 that children newly arrived from Mexico and Central America would stop coming to school if they were not gradually weaned off Spanish in traditional bilingual classes.

Now, he says he was wrong.

“I thought it would hurt kids,” Mr. Noonan said of the ballot initiative, which was called Proposition 227. “The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me. The kids began to learn — not pick up, but learn — formal English, oral and written, far more quickly than I ever thought they would.

“You read the research and they tell you it takes seven years,” added Mr. Noonan, a Californian whose Mexican mother never learned English. “Here are kids, within nine months in the first year, and they literally learned to read.”

As evidence, Mr. Noonan need not look farther than his own district, where, in a mirror of the state, one of every four students, or more than 5,000, is classified as limited English proficient. Oceanside was among the most diligent school districts in the state in adhering to the new law, and recorded some of the biggest increases.

In the second grade in Oceanside, for example, the average reading score of students initially classified as limited English jumped 19 percentage points over the last two years — to the 32nd percentile from the 13th, according to preliminary state figures.

Only in the 10th and 11th grades, in a reflection of the entrenched language problems of teenage Spanish speakers statewide, were the increases below four percentage points.

Oceanside’s performance was all the more striking when measured against the nearby district of Vista, where half the limited English speakers — about 2,500 students — were granted waivers by the superintendent to continue in bilingual classes. In nearly every grade, the increases in Oceanside were at least double those in Vista, which is similar in size and economic background to Oceanside.

At the very least, the results so far in California represent a tentative affirmation of the vision of Ron K. Unz. Mr. Unz is the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who almost single-handedly financed and organized the initiative that has all but eliminated bilingual education in California, in which students were taught math, social studies and science in their native language until they gradually picked up English. (Students who now wish to be taught in such classes must seek a waiver from their districts, on the grounds that they would otherwise be educationally or psychologically harmed by the pace of the English immersion class.)

Mr. Unz, who has played an active role in the Arizona effort, said he had been dismayed to read several years ago that students across California were languishing in bilingual classes for six years or more, routinely failing to graduate. He also found that there was little research that supported bilingual education, which had been developed in Congress in the 1960’s, at least in part, as a means to send federal aid to poor Southwestern school districts. Even supporters concede it soon became entrenched as a way to pay the salaries of thousands of bilingual teachers and administrators.

“The test scores these last two years have risen, and risen dramatically,” Mr. Unz said in a telephone interview. “Something has gone tremendously right for immigrants being educated in California.”

In Oceanside, as in many districts in the state, the elimination of bilingual education has been accompanied by other changes, making its impact hard to gauge with precision. Class sizes in the lower elementary grades have been pared to 20, from more than of 30 two years ago, with an infusion of state aid. For the most intransigent readers, Spanish speakers chief among them, an old-fashioned, sound-it-out, phonics approach to teaching reading has replaced whole language, a more progressive approach that encourages students to use context clues to extract meaning, sometimes at the expense of pronunciation.

With so many variables introduced at once, Kenji Hakuta, a professor of education at Stanford University, argued that few conclusions about bilingual education could be drawn from the results, other than that “the numbers didn’t turn negative,” as many had feared. Indeed, Professor Hakuta said that given a new emphasis on testing statewide, some districts are clearly teaching to the exams. Scores are up across the board in nearly all grades, though rarely as sharply as in Oceanside.

He said that districts like Oceanside were posting such sizable gains, in part, because their previous scores had been so abysmally low — and remained so.

While the school districts are required to implement the new law, it is difficult to ascertain to what degree they have been teaching their Spanish-speaking students in English. The law requires only that teachers instruct “overwhelmingly” in English. But that is often easier to do in third grade, when the subject is multiplication, than in 11th grade, where it might be trigonometry. The state has mounted little effort to measure compliance.

Despite his initial, personal opposition to the new law, Mr. Noonan of Oceanside said that he was insistent that his district, in a city of 152,000 whose residents range from migrant farmers to naval officers to dot-com millionaires, would strictly follow the ban and teach Spanish-speaking students exclusively in English.

And thus, Mr. Noonan’s district makes an interesting case study.

Though the state permitted districts the discretion to grant waivers, Mr. Noonan took a hard line. Of 5,000 students in the district who, according to a basic skills test, were found to have limited English proficiency, 150, or 3 percent, sought waivers; only 12 were granted.

By comparison, in the nearby district of Vista, where parents supporting bilingual education have created a powerful advocacy group, about one of every two students sought a waiver from the new law, and all such requests were granted.

“Our philosophy,” said Dave Cowles, the Vista superintendent, “is that we give the parent the information about the benefits and the downside of the bilingual program, and then let them decide.”

But so far, for the first time in recent memory, Oceanside is outpacing its archrival Vista.

In Oceanside, the average score of third graders who primarily speak Spanish improved by 11 percentage points in reading over the last two years, to the 22nd percentile; in Vista, the gain was a more modest 5 percentage points, to the 18th percentile.

In fifth grade in Oceanside, limited English speakers gained 10 percentage points in reading, with the average in the 19th percentile; in Vista, there was no increase, the average of limited English speakers staying flat, in the 12th percentile.

“It’s premature to comment on which ultimately works better,” said Mr. Cowles, the Vista superintendent.

Yet he added, “If these results are indicative of how students learn best, then we have to take them into account when we talk to parents.”

In Oceanside, virtually all vestiges of bilingual education have been disassembled, including at Garrison Elementary, a stucco-coated building surrounded by eucalyptus trees, where nearly one of every two students is a native Spanish speaker. There, Leticia Cortez, a certified bilingual teacher, now teaches mathematics in English to her Spanish-speaking first graders.

She resorts to speaking Spanish to a student only if he appears to be in emotional distress, and then only to counsel him, not to instruct.

That was the case with Christian Dom?nguez, 7, whose broad grin is usually flanked by deep dimples, but who cried for the first two weeks he spent in Ms. Cortez’s class, which he entered only days after arriving from Mexico.

“The only thing I could talk in English,” he said, “was nothing.”

But nine months later, Christian is able to read short books about dinosaurs and the cartoon character Arthur, while understanding what he hears on his favorite television show, “X-Men.”

His mother, Roc?o, 28, a baby sitter, said, “I’m happy, oh, wow!”

In fact, so much English is spoken by parents and children and teachers in Oceanside that Gabriela D?az, 8, who is entering the third grade, has experienced an unforeseen consequence of Proposition 227.

“When my friends from Mexico come here,” she said, “I don’t understand what they’re saying.”

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