Education

California’s English-Fluency Numbers Help Fuel Debate

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 05, 2001 3 min read
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The percentage of English-language learners that California school districts reclassify each year as fluent in English has increased slightly since the anti- bilingual-education Proposition 227 was implemented in the state three years ago.

While both proponents and opponents of bilingual education say the state’s “redesignation rate” is little understood by people outside education, it has been used by people in both camps to try to sway public opinion over the controversial issue, in California and nationwide.

The redesignation rate refers to the percentage of students who meet their school districts’ criteria for English fluency. Districts use scores on California’s standardized test, the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, as one criterion for reclassification, though cutoff scores and other criteria vary by district.

Since 1998, the year that California voters passed Proposition 227, the annual rate at which California districts redesignate English-language learners as fluent in English has increased, on average, from 7 percent to 9.1 percent, according to data released last month by the California Department of Education.

California officials and other experts contend, however, that district redesignation rates don’t reflect how long it takes students to become fluent in English, or whether their English-acquisition programs were effective. “Many districts are a port of entry [for immigrants] or have shifting populations, so their ability to redesignate students may be minimal,” said Leroy H. Hamm, a bilingual education consultant for the state department of education.

Issue in Campaign

Because California has about 40 percent of the nation’s school-age English-language learners, the percentage of students there reclassified as fluent plays a major role in the national debate over how to teach children from non-English-speaking backgrounds. (“Ariz. Eyes Calif.'s 1-Year LEP Classes,” Nov. 1, 2000.)

Proposition 227 aimed to replace most transitional bilingual education programs—in which students are taught academics in their native languages while they are learning English—with English-immersion programs “not normally intended to exceed one year.”

A similar measure approved by Arizona voters, called Proposition 203, was implemented this year. Meanwhile, citizens in Massachusetts are campaigning to put a Proposition 227-like initiative before voters there next November.

Ron K. Unz, the California businessman who has financed all of those efforts, used redesignation rates in the campaign for Proposition 227 to argue that bilingual education programs were failing.

He argued then that because California’s redesignation rate was about 5 percent (it was 7 percent in 1998, according to the California education department), bilingual education programs were experiencing an “annual failure rate of 95 percent.”

Modest Increase

This fall, in a debate at Harvard University between Mr. Unz and Catherine Snow, a Harvard professor of education and advocate of bilingual education, Ms. Snow used California’s modest rise in redesignation rates to argue that Proposition 227 hasn’t worked.

“If the redesignation rates had gone to 80 percent, I would have said, ‘Congratulations, Ron Unz. I was wrong and you were right,’” she said last week.

Mr. Unz countered that he’s always viewed redesignation rates as “meaningless,” and has used them chiefly to beat bilingual educators at their own game by showing that by one of their own measures, they are failing to teach students English. “This whole tower has been built on a foundation of sand,” he said.

In his current efforts to curtail bilingual education, Mr. Unz is focusing on the increases in Stanford-9 scores over the past two years among English-language learners in California to argue that Proposition 227 is working.

California education officials, however, say that those increases could be attributed to a number of influences, including the state’s efforts to reduce class sizes.

Kenji Hakuta, an education professor at Stanford University and an advocate of bilingual education, said that redesignation rates and test scores for English-language learners are linked and should be viewed together.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as California’s English-Fluency Numbers Help Fuel Debate

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