We certainly won’t begrudge state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin a bit of crowing about the results of the Stanford 9 tests made public Monday. The results, for the test given to all state students in the spring, were indeed encouraging, showing significant increases in student performance. “Results for the 2000 school year show gains in almost every academic area and grade level tested,” Ms. Eastin announced.

“The most substantial improvement is in the elementary grades … .” Even greater improvement occurred in Orange County, where students scored above the state average overall and made dramatic, sometimes double-digit jumps at some schools. Orange County’s 353,000 students scored four to 11 points higher in all areas. While we too are encouraged at the improvements, however, we might take issue with Ms. Eastin’s explanation for the improvements: smaller class sizes, improved reading instruction and teacher training in math, along with “a new spirit in schools” were at the top of her list.

Whatever contributions those factors made to the improved test scores, we can’t help notice that the improvements also coincide with the implementation of a “back to basics” movement in the public schools in recent years, which was for the most part resisted by the schools establishment. For example, “More intensive phonics instruction is starting to take hold,” said Lance Izumi, co-director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Center for Innovation in Education. “Kids are getting better reading skills,” he told us, “which also translates into better scores in math because they can read word problems.”

The three-decade experimentation with Whole Word reading methods, which ignored how syllables sound, began to be phased out of California public schools in the mid-’90s, replaced by a return to phonics. Pointing to the test results showing major improvements in the earliest grades, with almost no improvements in high school test scores, Mr. Izumi said that’s the result of phonics finally being taught in those early grades.

Many high school students remain hobbled by the failed Whole Word method they were forced to learn years ago. Schools also have largely abandoned another education fad, the New New Math, for a return to computational math. Finally, bilingual education has mostly ended, thanks to Proposition 227, which voters passed in June 1998. “Bilingual education was a failure and it was a good thing this was changed,” Mr. Izumi said.

The man who put Prop. 227 on the ballot, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, agreed. He told us additional test results to be released in a month will show more accurately how well Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students have done since 227 was implemented. But until then, he pointed to San Juan Elementary in Capistrano Unified School District, 90 percent of whose students are LEP. After 227 passed, he said, the school “almost completely and immediately switched to English immersion.”

The results are in. On the Stanford 9 test, the school saw its scores double between 1998 and 2000. For example, fifth-grade reading jumped to a score of 26 from 12, math to 36 from 13, language to 38 from 17 and spelling to 30 from 13. California schools continue to lag behind too many other states in many measures of achievement. And standardized tests, and the implementation of Stanford 9, have their critics.

But the coincidence of the state’s modest “back to basics” movement with these latest encouraging test scores cannot be ignored. Parents should take note, especially since the pressure to introduce new educational fads and non-academic experiments in public schools – especially from the federal government – can be expected to continue. It should be resisted.

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