The long-awaited release by the California Department of Education of the corrected Stanford 9 test scores on Friday met with a much subdued reaction from warring political camps.
The standardized test scores were originally released on June 30, but the CDOE discovered that the testing company, Harcourt Educational Measurement, had made errors in the classification of students according to language proficiency, resulting in inflated scores for English-language learners. The latest score report was still clouded because 420,000 students, 10 percent of the total student population, were not classified by language-proficiency category.
The lack of precision in classifying language-minority students was distressing to those who had hoped to tout the success of Proposition 227 with its mandated English-only instruction. However, bilingual educators had predicted that the results of a standardized test administered in English to children who are not proficient would be difficult to interpret and inconclusive, whether they rose or fell. In fact, one editorialist called the test results “an ideological Rorschach test” in anticipation of various interpretations according to the political stakes of different groups in California’s vast array of education reforms.
Ron Unz, author of Proposition 227, attempted to extrapolate good news from statewide scores of English-language learners by creating a new statistical category for measuring gains from 1998 to 1999 — percent of increase by grade level. Unz declared that Proposition 227 must be working because English learners at some grade levels increased their scores by 20 percent.
This statistical wizardry over 4 percentage points of a 100-point scale favored students who scored in the lower ranges, due to pure arithmetic. An equivalent would be for the proud parents of a two-year-old to brag about how precocious he is because he increased his age 200 percent, lording it over the parents of a 19-year-old who only gained 5 percent. Any expert in educational measurements would be ethically bound to explain that only scores of more than five points on a standardized test are significant, meaning that there is a reasonable possibility that the gains did not merely occur by chance.
So after all the Monday-morning quarterbacking on test results dies down, what can policy-makers really say about education reforms in general and language-minority student education in particular? The answer is — not much. The SAT-9 compares California students with a population of students from around the nation, only 2 percent of whom are limited-English proficient. In other words, it equates a state that has 25 percent of its students who are non-native speakers of English who are not proficient in the language with one that has a population more like Iowa or Kansas.
Efforts to get a clear picture of impact of reforms on language-minority students is further complicated by the fact that on April 8, 1999, the state Board of Education did away with the criteria for reclassifying students as fluent-English proficient. Next year when the SAT-9 scores are reported, it may not matter whether or not the testing company goofs. If every school district determines its own classification system for English-language learners, we may see more statistical wizardry, but very little educational improvement.
What we can say for sure is that the achievement gap between English-language learners and their native English speaking peers is very wide, and after one year of implementation of Proposition 227 has not narrowed appreciably.
However, Proposition 227 has severely narrowed the options for California’s educators and local communities to address this persistent gap. This is the challenge facing policy-makers — how to address a complex challenge with very few alternatives if English-only does not prove to be the hoped-for quick fix.
Mora is assistant professor of teacher education at San Diego State University where she prepares teachers for the Cross-cultural Language and Academic Development credential.