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In Battle Over Prop. 227, Both Sides Command Armies of Statistics

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California has more limited-English-proficient students than any other state, and relatively sophisticated data about them. But there's still a lot that the Golden State does not track. Here's a snapshot of what's known, and not known, about LEP students in California:

LEP students make up about a quarter of the 5.6 million students in the state's classrooms, and California has a wide variety of programs that serve them. Only 30 percent are enrolled in bilingual education, where students are taught in their native languages for at least part of the school day and gradually ease into English.

About 22 percent have some native-language help, 32 percent are taught in a variety of English programs designed for language-minority students, and roughly 16 percent receive no special support.

California, like many other states, faces a shortage of qualified bilingual teachers. Current estimates put the shortage at 21,000 to 27,000. There are about 15,000 fully credentialed bilingual teachers in the state's teacher workforce of 250,000.

Critics have pointed to high dropout rates among Hispanics as evidence of bilingual education's failure. But state officials say there's no way to know whether LEP students statewide drop out of school at higher rates or not--the California education department does not calculate dropout rates that way.

The state does, however, break out dropout rates based on race and ethnicity. The state's overall annual dropout rate for 1995-96 was 3.9 percent. Among the groups tracked, African-American students had the highest dropout rate, 6.6 percent. Hispanics ranked second-highest at 5.6 percent. About half the state's 2.2 million Hispanic students and 42 percent of the state's 460,000 students of Asian descent are considered LEP.

The state also does not track whether LEP students generally perform better academically in one program model over another--such as bilingual education vs. a more English-intensive approach--over time. Complicating the picture is the fact that the state has not had a mandatory statewide test since 1994 to be able to track student achievement overall.

Comparisons Draw Fire

The Los Angeles district recently tried to compare the achievement of Spanish-speaking students who had gone through the district's basic bilingual program with of that their peers who were taught predominantly in English-language-development programs.

The 667,000-student system, which enrolls 22 percent of California's 1.4 million LEP students, found that LEP students in bilingual programs outscored their counterparts on the Stanford 9 English standardized achievement tests in reading, language, and math. The analysis looked only at students who had been in the same program at the same school since kindergarten or 1st grade.

Critics blasted the internal report, noting that after five or six years in bilingual education, only 61 percent of the 5th graders in the bilingual sample were deemed ready to take the test in English. But 97 percent of those in the English program took the test.

The district policy called for students in bilingual programs to be tested in English only if they could read in English at grade level, while students in an English program were tested if they had been in a U.S. school 30 months or more.

To address the criticisms, Los Angeles went back to compare 5th graders from the two programs who had comparable levels of English proficiency. The bilingual sample still outperformed students in the English program. But the district's foray into finding what works best illustrates how complex and controversial the question has become.

Gaining Fluency

Back in 1994, California gave its statewide test at the time, the California Learning Assessment System, in English in grades 4, 5, 8, and 10. In general, LEP students performed worse in the subjects tested--reading, writing, math, science, and history--than students overall.

Under state rules, those LEP students tested on the exam had to have spent 30 months of instructional time in U.S. schools. Schools could exempt from the tests students who met the 30-month mark but were taught primarily in a language other than English and were tested with an alternative assessment.

One of the most cited statistics in the bilingual education debate is a school's or district's "redesignation" rate: the rate at which LEP students are identified as having gained English fluency. In 1997, the statewide average rate was 6.7 percent, which translated into roughly 89,000 students redesignated over the course of a year. Among districts with sizable LEP populations, observers can point to districts known for a more English-intensive approach and districts known for a more bilingual approach who rank above, and below, the state's average rate.

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