English-Language Learners

English-Language Learners Post Improved Calif. Test Scores

By Mary Ann Zehr — September 05, 2001 4 min read
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English-language learners have improved their overall scores on California’s statewide standardized test for the third year in a row. But the scores improved significantly only for elementary and middle school students, with gains stalling in high school.

And, also for the third year in a row, a big gap between the scores of English-language learners and those of all California students persists in all subjects and grades.

“California still faces an extraordinary challenge to provide a standards-based education for 25 percent of our population who are still earmarked as English-language learners, and to at the same time instruct them in the English language,” said Douglas Stone, the state education department’s director of communications.

Bilingual education opponents have closely monitored the test scores of English-language learners in California, which has about 40 percent of such students nationally. Since the release of last year’s results, those critics have used the improved scores to argue that California made the right move in voting to curtail bilingual education.

In 1998, California voters approved Proposition 227, which sought to replace most bilingual education programs—in which students are taught some subjects in their native language while learning English—with English immersion, which teaches students primarily in English.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco last week upheld the law, turning back a challenge to Proposition 227 from the California Teachers Association.

Test-Score Politics

Last year, Proposition 227’s leading backer, California businessman Ron K. Unz, cited the increased test scores in California—particularly in the Oceanside school district—in his campaign to get an anti-bilingual-education measure passed in Arizona.

Mr. Unz’s campaign succeeded in Arizona, and this summer he announced efforts to try to get similar measures approved in Colorado and Massachusetts. In those states as well, he is arguing that the scores of California’s English-language learners on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, the test the state uses, improved as a result of Proposition 227.

But supporters of bilingual education contend that, in fact, educators should be concerned about English-language learners’ performance on the Stanford-9, despite the increased scores, because the rate of increase for such students has lagged behind that of all students.

This year, the gains of English-language learners on the Stanford-9 are less dramatic than they were in the previous two years. At the 2nd grade level, for example, the percentage of English-language learners scoring at or above the national average rose 3 percentage points this year over last, or from 25 percent to 28 percent. But for the two previous years, it rose a total of 10 percentage points. Math scores for the same group follow a similar pattern.

At the high school level, the scores for English-language learners have consistently been low. In 1998, only 3 percent of such students in 9th grade, for example, scored at or above the national average in reading. In three years, the figure has increased only to 4 percent.

Mr. Stone, the state education department spokesman, declined to attribute the rise in scores of English-language learners overall this year to passage of Proposition 227.

“I’ve heard arguments on both sides,” he said. “The greatest gains were made in the elementary grades, and that could be based on a variety of reasons, from class-size reduction, to the way kids are taught how to read, to the standards that have been implemented.”

Mr. Unz and others who desire an end to bilingual education, however, drew a link for the second year in a row. They attracted widespread press coverage of their position after the release of last year’s scores, fueling debate with supporters of bilingual instruction. (“Cause of Higher Calif. Scores Sore Point in Bilingual Ed. Debate,” Sept. 6, 2000.)

Quiet Debate

This year, a quieter debate—mostly through electronic communications—ensued over what the scores mean for the state’s 1.5 million English-language learners. Mr. Unz circulated through e-mail to reporters two commentaries drawing a connection between the improved scores for English-language learners at the elementary school level and Proposition 227.

“How can replacing bilingual education with English immersion be so risky an experiment, given the rapid gains of 50 percent or 60 percent already notched by over 1 million immigrant students in California?” he wrote in one of the commentaries.

In an interview, Mr. Unz acknowledged that the 50 percent or 60 percent gain occurred only in some subjects and grades for elementary students, not across the board for all of California’s English-language learners.

Linda Chavez, the president of the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity and another opponent of bilingual education, said in a syndicated column that she circulated by e-mail that the higher scores among English-language learners in California were evidence that “English immersion works.”

Bilingual education advocates, however, countered by circulating through e-mail a commentary written by Kenji Hakuta, a Stanford University education professor, that zeroed in on the test scores of Oceanside Unified, the district that Mr. Unz had singled out as a Proposition-227 success story last year.

Mr. Hakuta noted that Oceanside’s scores for English-language learners stagnated and even dropped in some grades between last year and this year. He also outlined what he said were the pitfalls of trying to draw a connection between test scores and Proposition 227’s impact.

Mr. Hakuta and others contend that the Stanford- 9 is not a good measure of how well English-language learners are acquiring English. For the first time this year, California launched a standardized test— called the California English Language Development Test—to do just that. Scores on that test are expected to be released in February.

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