Ca. Test Score Gains Vindicate Bilingual Ban

Published September 1, 1999

California’s standardized STAR test scores, released July 22, showed that the state’s English learners, while still substantially trailing their peers, made modest but significant gains during the first school year since Proposition 227 became law.

The initiative effectively ended bilingual education and required that students “be taught English by being taught in English.” It also triggered policymakers in Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, and other states, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives, to pursue their own bilingual education reforms, launching one of the fastest_moving public policy issues in the nation.

The STAR results were released amidst a cloud of errors and delays, a process that mirrored the confusion surrounding Proposition 227’s implementation in many districts across the state. It was discovered initially that the testing company had made errors classifying students by language proficiency, and then later reported in the Los Angeles Times that some 420,000 tests failed to identify students by fluency level at all.

When the dust cleared, the results found that statewide, English learners showed growth in reading (3 percentile points), math (5 percentile points), and language (3 percentile points) over last year’s scores, similar to the growth shown by California students overall. Limited English Proficient (LEP) pupils showed the largest improvement in the second and third grades, where the initiative’s changes had the greatest effect on curriculum.

Districts that demonstrated the most impressive growth among English learners also showed the most convincing efforts to comply with the new law’s English immersion requirements. Conversely, those districts where LEP scores improved the least were among those where compliance was slowest, most troubled, and, in the case of one district, San Jose Unified, legally exempted by waiver.

LEP students in Santa Barbara Elementary School District, identified by Prop 227 author Ron Unz as a compliance leader, showed significant improvements in test scores in all categories, up 5 percentile points in reading and 6 in spelling. The district Unz and others found to be the strictest follower of Proposition 227, Oceanside Unified School District, had perhaps the most remarkable results: an increase of 47 percent, or 5 percentile points, for English learners.

Dr. Joseph Farley, principal of Oceanside’s Mission Elementary School, testified in June before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce that “We have been significantly encouraged by our recent successes and will continue to raise the bar for increased student performance in all areas.”

Contrasting scores included Los Angeles Unified, where results for English learners were up 1 percentile point for reading and language and 3 percentiles in math. A county grand jury recently found that “in actual practice, English is not being used to teach all subjects,” a marked abuse of the new law. The grand jury also found that some classrooms had new textbooks in the children’s native language.

Although the current set of test scores was not as decisive as Proposition 227’s supporters may have hoped, it provides evidence that the learning gap for English learners can be reduced through an intensive English approach.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank based in Arlington, Virginia.