Latest California Test Scores Bring Good News for English Learners

Published April 1, 2005

When California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, opponents of the measure predicted it would be a disaster for students whose primary language is not English. But according to the latest test scores, the new focus on English fluency is producing remarkable improvements for English learners.

The law required California schools to abandon “transitional bilingual education programs” that taught immigrant students predominantly–and often exclusively–in their non-English native languages. Instead, Proposition 227 called for schools to implement English immersion programs designed to close the language gap in one year.

Implementation Uneven

Proposition 227’s implementation has been uneven by all accounts. But the law’s emphasis on early English fluency has been felt across California. The state’s latest test scores, announced in February, demonstrated major gains for the third year in a row.

Statewide, 47 percent of English learners scored in the top two categories of English proficiency on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT) for 2004. In 2003, 43 percent scored in the top two categories; 34 percent did so in 2002; and only 25 percent in 2001. The scores thus show an improvement of 22 percentage points in the past four years.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell heralded the improvements. “These results are a clear indication that statewide efforts to help all English learners learn English as quickly as possible are working,” said O’Connell in a written statement.

L.A. Scores Improved Greatly

Driving the increase were substantial gains in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest. The percent of seventh- and eighth-grade English learners in Los Angeles scoring in the top two categories jumped by 43 points since 2001, and every grade level increased by at least 17 points.

By contrast, two northern California school districts–where resistance to Proposition 227 has been vigorous–showed increases below the state average. Alum Rock Elementary and San Jose Unified School District both had 46 percent of English learners score in the top two categories of English fluency. Both school districts tested fewer English learners this year than in recent years, while Los Angeles Unified tested 7 percent more English learners in 2004 than it had three years ago.

O’Connell noted a potentially troubling trend related to English learners. The most recent figures indicate a growing gap between the number of English learners testing fluent in English and the number officially reclassified by their schools as fluent. While 43 percent of English learners demonstrated English fluency on the CELDT in 2004, only 8.3 percent had been reclassified as fluent by their school district.

“I am concerned about this because English learners may not have full access to rigorous academic courses [until they are reclassified as fluent],” said O’Connell in his statement. He is urging school districts to review their procedures for reclassifying English learners when they become fluent in English.

Hastings Sacked from State Board

Ironically, shortly before the positive CELDT results were announced, English immersion’s strongest advocate lost his seat on California’s state Board of Education. Reed Hastings, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who championed Proposition 227, was denied his seat by a vote of the State Senate Rules Committee.

Hastings was originally appointed by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 1999, and current Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sought to reappoint him in 2004. But Hastings, a lifelong Democrat, had his nomination shot down by Democrats opposed to his position on bilingual education.

“What signal do you send to parents and children when a qualified and well-respected community leader like Reed Hastings is sacrificed to advocates of a narrowly focused agenda who wield power in Sacramento?” asked Margita Thompson, the governor’s press secretary, in a January 12 statement.

Don Soifer ([email protected]) is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute.