'Huge' success of Prop. 227 -- The New York Times buys in

For more than a year, Ron Unz, author of Proposition 227, the initiative seeking to end bilingual education in California, has been crowing about its success. Kids coming to school speaking little or no English, he says, have made “huge” test score gains since the measure passed two years ago.

The other day he made his first significant sale, and it was, to use Unz’s word, almost as huge as his claims. The New York Times not only bought his argument, but ran it (on Aug. 20) as its lead story. Not surprisingly, a lot of other papers, editorial pages particularly, bought the goods from the Times.

Unfortunately, the story was mostly wrong.

Not that those designated as LEP (limited-English proficient) haven’t made gains in the state’s SAT9 standardized test scores. They have. But so has everyone else. In 1998, for example, 15 percent of LEP second-graders scored at or above the national average in reading. In 2000 it was 25 percent, a gain of 10 percentage points. In the same period the percentage of all students scoring above average went from 40 percent to 49 percent.

In math, while LEP students made a 14-percentage point gain, from 26 percent to 40 percent with average or better scores, so did California students as a whole (from 43 percent over average to 57 percent).

Unless you accept Unz’s funny math, which counts rising from near rock-bottom to just above the bottom as a 100 percent gain (sort of like a team that’s won one game in 20 cheering its next win as a doubling of its won-lost percentage),the story seems to fall a little short of being front-page news in the nation’s paper of record. What’s certain is that the gap between LEP kids and other students hasn’t closed.

And if you take the reading scores for certain cohorts of LEP kids — say the second-graders of 1998 who, presumably, were fourth-graders in 2000 — you actually see a decline. Fifteen percent of them scored over the national average in reading in 1998; only 13 percent did in 2000. (In the meantime, second-graders as a whole had gone from 40 percent at or above average to 45 percent.)

In math during the same period, LEP kids went from 26 percent over average (in second grade in 1998) to 27 percent (in fourth grade in 2000), while all kids went from 43 percent over average in second grade to 51 percent in fourth grade. Which is to say that the LEP second-graders of 1998 gained less in the succeeding two years than the average child.

In the past year, moreover, far and away the biggest gainers (always assuming the accuracy of the data) were the state’s middle-class and affluent students; 70 percent of our “noneconomically disadvantaged” second- graders now score above the national average in reading, 73 percent in math. Now there’s a story.

To make the thing still dicier, by most counts only about a fifth of California kids had been in anything that would qualify as real bilingual classes even before Proposition 227 passed. Which is to say that a lot of those LEP kids weren’t learning much, either in the bilingual classes or anywhere else.

The Times story recognized that as bilingual education was being phased out in California, a great many other things were being phased in: class-size reduction, new curricula and, most emphatically, a high-stakes testing and accountability system that rewards schools and teachers for improving test scores and threatens schools with punishment for continued failure.

The only criterion on which that system is based is SAT9 test scores — the breakdowns for LEP kids and poor kids as well as the average for all students. That gives teachers, principals, even janitors, powerful incentives to raise scores. And since all kids have to be tested in English, there’s lots of pressure to teach them English in a hurry, Proposition 227 or no Proposition 227.

None of this says that Proposition 227 has done damage or that bilingualism was ever a success. Unz (and the Times) point out that some school people who were strong opponents of the initiative are now convinced that it works. The most often quoted among them is Ken Noonan, superintendent in Oceanside, whose LEP scores have risen much faster than those in neighboring Vista, which has similar demographics but where a lot of students got waivers to remain in bilingual classes.

On its face, that’s a no-brainer. If the kids aren’t prepped in English, they’re obviously not going to do well on a test given in English. But with the threat of state takeovers hanging over schools if their scores don’t improve, and with lavish bonuses going to the teachers who do raise scores, you’d expect that sooner or later people in places like Vista would figure it out, even without Proposition 227.

As the legislative analyst has pointed out, if we’re going to hold schools accountable, then we shouldn’t dictate how they’re to do it. And in the great gush of reform now hitting the schools, it’s the accountability system and the new curricular standards that look like the strongest drivers of test score improvements. That system may create a host of other problems, from cheating to an excessive focus on tests at the expense of all manner of things that are not tested. But for a while it’s almost certain to raise almost everybody’s scores.

Peter Schrag appears on Wednesdays. He can be reached by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA, 95852-0779; or by e-mail at [email protected]

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