Interpretations of Prop. 227 Vary Widely, Experts Say

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The implementation of Proposition 227 can be likened to a tornado, according to many of the researchers and state policy experts who gathered here recently to talk about the 1-year-old California law.

"In some cases when it touches down, it's making radical changes. And in some places, it's almost like it never happened," said Maria N. Trejo, a manager in the state education department's office of language policy and leadership.

The two-day conference last month, sponsored by the University of California's Linguistic Minority Research Institute and the California Policy Research Center, drew researchers who had examined the responses to Proposition 227 at the state and local levels and the factors that had helped shape those responses.

Some common denominators quickly emerged from the researchers' early findings:

  • Districts supportive of bilingual education before Proposition 227 have found ways in the new law to keep at least some bilingual classrooms; districts without such support, or those critical of bilingual education, have found ways in the law to get rid of it or severely restrict it.
  • The meaning of "structured English immersion," the program called for under Proposition 227, varies enormously from district to district and school to school.
  • Regardless of what array of programs a district offered before the ballot initiative passed, the new law has forced many to take a critical look at all their programs for limited-English-proficient students.

"Yes, Proposition 227 has weeded out some of the weaker bilingual programs, those that never had full commitment or resources to begin with," said Kris D. Gutierrez, an associate education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is studying three districts in Southern California. "But it's also weeded out some really good ones."

Teaching to the Test

Such varying interpretations of the law by districts and schools come against a backdrop of division among state policymakers, too, over the measure and its blueprint for LEP students.

For example, Proposition 227 is silent on how students are to be identified as LEP and how they drop that label once they reach English proficiency. The state school board is in the midst of revamping long-standing rules governing such procedures, changes that board officials say will be less prescriptive and more in keeping with the spirit of the law.

But education department officials and bilingual education supporters say the board's proposed changes veer too far toward local control and would gut the state's uniform and objective standards for determining who has limited English proficiency and who is ready to move into mainstream classes.

Meanwhile, the authors of Proposition 227 are fighting two bills they argue undermine the initiative.

The law calls for LEP students who have acquired a "good working knowledge of English," in most cases within one year, to move from a sheltered-English-immersion program to the mainstream, where students are native English-speakers or have acquired "reasonable fluency" in English.

One measure, Assembly Bill 1026, attempts to further define such terms and to require a plan for each student moving into the mainstream. It also would apply the law's call for a 30-day minimum placement in English immersion at the beginning of each year to only the first year parents obtained a waiver for their child to enroll in bilingual education.

Another bill, AB 144, would reverse a policy set by former Gov. Pete Wilson that requires all children in grades 2-11 to take the statewide achievement tests in English.

The bill calls for LEP students to receive at least two years of instruction primarily in English before being required to take the state-mandated tests in English. Instead, schools would have to offer tests in the major primary languages spoken by the state's LEP students.

Though Proposition 227 says nothing about assessment, the initiative's sponsors say testing LEP students in English gives the law teeth: If teachers know they will be held accountable for students' performance on a test given in English, they are more likely to want to teach in English to better prepare the students for the test.

But many experts say testing lep students in a language they don't understand means that the tests don't accurately gauge their academic skills.

Regardless, when scores are released this summer, Proposition 227 opponents and proponents alike are expected to comb the data looking for evidence that students perform better in English immersion or in bilingual programs. But experts caution such conclusions would be premature at best and severely flawed at worst.

Vol. 18, Issue 38, Page 11

Published in Print: June 2, 1999, as Interpretations of Prop. 227 Vary Widely, Experts Say
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