English-Learners & Immigrants

April 09, 2003 2 min read

Behind the Numbers

The California Department of Education has announced data that suggests the state’s schools were improving by leaps and bounds in helping English-language learners become fluent in the language. On second impression, the truth is less simple.

The proportion of English-language learners who showed they had “gained proficiency in English” by scoring at least “Early Advanced” or above on the state’s 2-year-old English-proficiency test nearly tripled for those students who had taken the test two years in a row, the department’s press release said. The percentage of those students scoring as proficient in English increased from 11 percent to 32 percent from 2001 to 2002.

While the statistic is good news, it says little about what kind of job the state’s schools are doing in teaching English-language learners overall, said Russell W. Rumberger, the director of the University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute, last week.

“It just tells us that the kids who were tested both years improved,” he said.

That pool of students numbers 860,000—a little more than half of all of the 1.5 million English-language learners in the state.

Mark E. Fetler, the manager of the California English Language Development Test, agreed that “you do have to be careful and think about just what group of kids we’re describing with these numbers.” But he argued that the numbers point to something good.

“This suggests that a lot of kids actually make progress fairly quickly,” Mr. Fetler said.

The sample excludes students reclassified as fluent in English after 2001, Mr. Rumberger observed, since they would not have taken the test a second time. It also excludes any English-language learners who arrived in California schools in 2002, he said, since they would have taken the test only the second time, not the first time.

The result, he said, is that the 11 percent figure excludes students who would have tended to do well on the test, and that the 32 percent figure excludes students who would have tended to do poorly, making the increase appear particularly dramatic.

So how well did all the state’s English-language learners who took the test last year do on the test, compared with those who took it in 2001? In fact, 34 percent of all English-language learners who took the test in 2002 scored as proficient in English, while only 25 percent of students who took the test the previous year did so, according to the department.

—Mary Ann Zehr