Test Scores Show Failure of Bilingual Ed

Published October 1, 2000

Bilingual education reform may have aced its most importance test to date when results for English learners on the Stanford 9 test were released earlier this month. The scores provide the most compelling evidence yet that well-designed immersion programs offer the best opportunity for limited English proficient students to acquire the language skills they need.

“Results for our English learners, although lower than results for English-proficient students, increased in almost all subjects and grade areas,” declared Delaine Easton, California State Superintendent for Public Instruction.

In the two years since California’s bilingual reform law was passed, second grade English learners statewide improved their test scores from the 19th to the 28th percentile in reading, and from the 27th to the 41st percentile in math. While they continued to lag significantly behind other students, the latest test results offer ample reason for optimism about closing the achievement gap in both reading and math.

The test scores were particularly impressive at the lower grades and in school districts where compliance with the new law was considered strongest. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, where gains were comparatively modest overall, third-grade English learners improved their reading scores by 6 percentile points (to the 27th percentile) and math scores by 5 points (to the 34th percentile) over last year’s scores.

Oceanside School District, a large, urban district 75 minutes from the Mexican border, complied most thoroughly and rapidly with Proposition 227. Since Oceanside abandoned its heavy reliance on Spanish-language instruction at the start of the 1999-2000 school year, English learners have gone from the 12th percentile in reading to the 23rd, and from the 18thto the 37thpercentile in math. The district combined intensive English immersion with other reforms, including restructuring Title I funds to extend the school day by one hour; a structured, phonics-based language arts program taught early in the morning; and a zero tolerance for violence policy at elementary and secondary schools.

California school districts that continued to rely on non-English, native-language instruction showed little gain among English learners. San Jose, which used a standing court order to preserve its bilingual programs, showed only a 1.6 percentile point gain in reading scores for that group, compared with an increase of 4.4 percentile points among all students.

Santa Ana school board member Rosemarie Avila was outspoken in blaming her district’s marginal growth in scores on its failure to abandon bilingual programs.

“I think we’re going to continue to [score] low until we get rid of bilingual education,” Avila said. “This is an English test.”

Critics of Proposition 227 had widely predicted it would bring educational disaster for the state’s English learners. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley called the measure “an educational straitjacket.” Governor Gray Davis, who also had spoken out against the initiative, now describes English learners’ results as “important gains,” stressing “we must remain committed to narrowing the gaps between English learners and students fluent in English.”

Since California voters approved Proposition 227 in 1998, bilingual education reform has become one of the fastest-moving public policy issues in the nation. There have been substantial efforts to limit bilingual education across the country, including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts. An Arizona measure based on Proposition 227 will appear on the ballot this November.

Congress appeared poised to approve unprecedented reforms of federal bilingual programs until election-year maneuvering caused debate on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to be suspended this spring.

Before Proposition 227, many Americans perceived bilingual education reform as an issue dominated by conservative Republicans. That dynamic has changed as the evidence supporting English immersion has become overwhelming. Many of the recent reform proposals have been sponsored by Democrats.

For parents, educators, and policymakers contemplating bilingual education reform measures around the nation, the message from California is clear: English immersion works.

Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].