English-Language Learners

Ariz. Eyes Calif.'s 1-Year LEP Classes

By Mary Ann Zehr — November 01, 2000 7 min read

In predicting the effects of Proposition 203, a measure to dismantle bilingual education that goes before Arizona voters next week, both proponents and opponents have pointed to a 1998 California law that had a similar intent.

Depending on whose rendition one accepts, California’s law has either clearly worked or clearly not worked. Whose account Arizona voters believe could influence whether they decide to end bilingual education in their own state.

As the arguments for and against the Arizona ballot question have unfurled in recent months, the California measure’s effect on test scores has attracted widespread attention. But there is an equally contentious issue that has received less prominence in the public debate: whether the policy that students should learn English in a single academic year is proving feasible in practice.

The ballot initiatives in both states were drafted and financed by the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron K. Unz, and they aim to replace bilingual education, which provides academic instruction in students’ native languages while they are learning English, with English-immersion programs. Under both measures, children are to be enrolled in the immersion programs “during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year,” and then moved into regular classrooms.

Just how long children have been staying in English-immersion programs in California since the passage of that state’s Proposition 227 is unclear, because the state education department does not collect that data.

But supporters of bilingual education argue that California’s “redesignation rate"—the percentage of students with limited English proficiency that districts declare fluent each year—shows that the idea that most immigrant children can learn the language in a single school year just hasn’t panned out.

As proof, they note that the average redesignation rate for California districts has budged only slightly since passage of Proposition 227. An average of 7.8 percent of California’s LEP students were redesignated as fluent in English this year, up from 7.6 percent last year and 7 percent in 1998, when Proposition 227 went into effect.

“If 227 had worked, everyone should have been redesignated after a year. That didn’t happen—not even close,” said Stephen Krashen, an education professor at the University of Southern California who has advised Arizonans against Proposition 203.

Mr. Unz concedes that many children have stayed in English- immersion programs in California for more than one year. But he said he still believes most immigrant children—particularly at ages 5, 6, and 7—can learn English in a year.

More important, he says, redesignation rates are meaningless. “Schools are paid more money for every LEP student they have,” he said. “They have a vested interest in not teaching children English, or pretending the children aren’t learning English.”

But Maria S. Quezada, the interim executive director of the California Association of Bilingual Education, said that expecting children to master English in a year is “not possible” in light of “what we know of learning another language.”

“Mr. Unz claimed that children could learn English in one year and move out,” she said. “We’re not finding that.”

No Cause and Effect

Maria N. Trejo, the manager of the California Department of Education’s office for language policy and leadership office, said she views the slight rise in the state’s redesignation rate as “wonderful.” But she said it’s hard to conclude what the redesignation rate says about the success of the state’s LEP students, because the criteria for redesignation are set by individual districts, not the state.

“Who is a limited-English-proficient student? That definition is very vague in this state and all other states,” said John Mockler, the interim education secretary for Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat.

Mr. Mockler believes districts are low-balling the rates at which students are becoming fluent in English. About 20 percent of California’s 1.4 million LEP students scored above the national average in reading on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition this year, Mr. Mockler pointed out. If those students can score so well on such a test, he said, they probably shouldn’t be classified as LEP.

Typically, students must score at the 35th percentile on the Stanford-9 reading test to qualify for redesignation, California educators say.

In Arizona, if Proposition 203 is approved by voters Nov. 7, how children there are designated as fluent in English is likely to be controversial, particularly because the measure would effectively repeal all of the state statutes concerning LEP students.

In California, state laws on identification of LEP students and redesignation stayed in place after passage of Proposition 227. (“Cause of Higher Calif. Scores Sore Point in Bilingual Ed. Debate,” Sept. 6, 2000.)

One reason that supporters of bilingual education have tried to get the issue of redesignation rates into the debate over Arizona’s Proposition 203 is to counter opponents’ contentions about test scores.

Mr. Unz and other supporters of Proposition 203 have used the increase in test scores of LEP students in California, particularly in districts that completely replaced bilingual education with English immersion, as proof that Proposition 227 has succeeded. The districts cited most often have been Oceanside, located about 45 miles north of the Mexican border, and Santa Barbara.

Supporters of bilingual education have noted that the redesignation rate in Oceanside is considerably below the state average. This year, it was 4.1 percent, down from 6.6 percent the year before.

By contrast, some districts that kept bilingual education in place have redesignation rates that exceeded the state average.

Bilingual education supporters suggest that test scores of LEP students may have been inflated by some districts’ failure to move fluent students out of the LEP pool.

Oceanside’s redesignation rate was low for this year simply because the 22,000-student district neglected to pay much attention to it, said Laurie U. Alexander, the district’s coordinator for categorical programs. “It wasn’t our focus at the time to look at the redesignation of students,” she said.

Struggle Over Statistics

Some bilingual education advocates are also still smarting at the way Mr. Unz used redesignation rates against them in the campaign for Proposition 227, by saying that bilingual education was experiencing an “annual failure rate of 95 percent” since the redesignation rate was “about 5 percent.” According to the California education department, it was closer to 7 percent at the time.

“I don’t hear anyone talking about the 92 percent failure rate [for Proposition 227] now,” said Alejandra Sotomayor, the spokeswoman for English Plus More, which is fighting Proposition 203.

Mr. Unz said last week that while he considers redesignation rates meaningless, he used them in the California campaign because he wanted to show that by the very statistic used by “the bilingual establishment,” the system had failed.

He acknowledged that he has also used Arizona’s redesignation rate in the campaign against Proposition 203. Since the redesignation rate there is about 3 percent, “theirs is a 97 percent failure rate,” he said. According to the Arizona education department, the statewide rate is actually 5.5 percent.

Mr. Unz’s critics point out that because two-thirds of Arizona’s LEP students are enrolled in English-as-a-second-language programs, a form of English immersion, Mr. Unz is speaking of the failure of English-only instruction as well as bilingual education.

Deborah A. Flores, the superintendent of the Santa Barbara, Calif., public schools, said it’s a mistake to make too much out of redesignation rates at this point. Even though her 16,000-student district’s redesignation rate now stands at just 2.9 percent, she predicted it would rise thanks to such efforts as increased professional development for teachers and a focus on phonics, in addition to the English-only aspect of Proposition 227.

She said she had never subscribed to the idea that students would “normally” learn English in a year. Instead, she said, the district is taking “a two- or three-year approach,” with the goal of having children read at grade level in English by 3rd grade.

“We’re looking at our incoming kindergartners and saying, as quickly as possible, they must acquire English,” Ms. Flores said. “For some it’s one year. For other it’s two or three.”

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