Original URL:  http://www.insidevc.com/vcs/county_news/article/0,1375,VCS_226_1840571,00.html

Limited-English students do better
Higher percentage passes state test
Ventura County Star
March 26, 2003
By Kathleen Wilson and Jean Cowden Moore, Star staff

Limited-English students in Ventura County are passing a new state test in increasing numbers as reforms in instruction and teacher training take hold, results released Tuesday show.

Across the county, 28 percent of students classified with limited English skills scored at the advanced levels on the California English Language Development test last year, slightly above the 23 percent earning that mark in 2001. Statewide, the gains were better: One-third of students scored at advanced levels, up from one-fourth in 2001, the year the test debuted.

Students in many local districts scored dramatic gains, notably the Santa Paula and Hueneme elementary districts as well as the Moorpark and Ventura districts, where hundreds more children achieved marks the state has set as a goal.

Educators said the gains reflect more time spent on formal instruction in English.

"I think that's something that's really changed in the last couple years," said Marilyn Green, who oversees instruction of limited-English students in the Moorpark Unified School District. "We've asked bilingual teachers to introduce English reading earlier and really focus on English instruction."

County Superintendent of Schools Charles Weis said the test has encouraged schools to spend more time on the teaching of

"What gets tested is what seems to matter," he said.

Some districts are trying to train virtually all of their teachers to work with limited-English students, particularly in elementary school. Educators in districts with high marks said they're constantly tracking students' progress and following state standards for what skills children should learn.

In the Pleasant Valley School District, where nearly half of the kids learning English scored at advanced levels, teachers test students regularly, not just once a year, said Darci Knight, coordinator of language acquisition.

That allows teachers to see exactly where students are weak in writing, language or speech, then quickly focus on improving those areas, she said.

"They know exactly where they are and exactly where they need to go," she said.

Teachers also get help from language coaches who review those tests and provide additional training.

One other advantage: Many students come into the district with a fairly strong academic background, giving them something of a head start over students with little education in their own language.

Such gains are essential if students are to thrive in middle and high school. Many limited-English students in Ventura County and the state have been able to graduate from high school without strong skills in the language. But starting in 2004, they will be barred from that unless they pass a rigorous exit examination.

"If our kids can't compete in English by seventh or eighth grade, they may not pass the exam," said Jerry Dannenberg, superintendent of the Hueneme School District. "We will relegate those kids to poverty forever."

About 24,000 students in Ventura County and 1.3 million across the state took the exam last year, which assesses their skills in speaking, listening, reading and writing. Limited-English students are one of the fastest-growing groups in the state's public schools. They comprise about one-fifth of the county's enrollment and one-fourth of the state's.

State schools chief Jack O'Connell said California is the first state in the nation to require the use of one state test to identify and monitor English proficiency. Regular testing of limited-English students is required under No Child Left Behind, the sweeping
education reform act championed by President Bush.

While the number of students scoring at higher levels is increasing, the rate at which students are moving into regular classrooms is still relatively low. Only about 5 percent of limited-English students in Ventura County and 8 percent in the state made that transition last year.

One reason cited by educators: The exam tests only some skills, so schools must also use other measures to determine if a student is ready for a regular classroom. Those measures include meeting with parents and determining whether a student understands English enough to learn from a textbook.

Green said most students who arrived in the Moorpark district even as recently as sixth grade test at the advanced levels by high school. But that doesn't mean they will thrive in high school courses requiring strong skills in reading and writing of English.

"They speak and understand English well, but that's not the same as being able to compete academically," she said.

"That's where our real push has been."

Testing experts say it is often difficult to gauge progress of limited-English students because the population is always changing. Last year, though, the state asked school districts to send test data on students who had taken the exam both in 2001 and 2002. That comparison for the identical group showed a much faster rate of progress.

Those scoring at the advanced levels statewide increased from 11 percent to 32 percent. The county shared that record, going from
11 percent to 30 percent at advanced levels.

Most districts in the county showed big gains when those students were compared -- Fillmore's rate doubled from 21 to 40 percent and Santa Paula elementary recorded a five-fold increase from 6 percent to more than 30 percent at the advanced levels.

-- On the Net: celdt.cde.ca.gov

Kathleen Wilson's email address is wilson@insidevc.com.

Jean Cowden Moore's email address is jcmoore@insidevc.com.