English learners fare better in test
San Francisco  Chronicle
March 19, 2004
Nanette Asimov, Staff Writer

Across state students score higher, results show

In California, where about a quarter of all public school students speak little English, more children learned the language last year than in prior years.

New results released Thursday show that among students who took the California English Language Development Test two years in a row, 43 percent scored at "early advanced or advanced" in 2003, compared with 34 percent in 2002.

In 2001 -- the first year the state measured students' skill at speaking, reading, writing and listening in English -- 25 percent of students scored at early advanced or above.

Results in Bay Area school districts mirrored the state's positive trend, even in districts such as Oakland and West Contra Costa, where standardized test scores typically are low. (See accompanying chart.)

The CELDT measures five levels, from beginning to advanced. Last fall, 1. 4 million public school students in kindergarten through grade 12 took the test.

The encouraging news comes a month after Elizabeth Hill, the state's legislative analyst, took an independent look at the first two years of the test and concluded that English learners were still not progressing fast enough.

But state Superintendent Jack O'Connell, who released the test scores, called the students' progress remarkable.

"We are moving in the right direction," said O'Connell, adding that the state's high standards, as well as new textbooks aimed at boosting English proficiency, were responsible for the improvement.

He refrained from crediting the 1998 ballot measure known as Proposition 227, which essentially required students to be taught in English instead of their primary language.

Although Prop. 227 passed by a large majority, 61 percent, the English- only law remains a sensitive subject for many education leaders because it was widely condemned by teachers and drew formal opposition from the Clinton administration.

Experts in teaching English emphasize that many factors besides the language of instruction determine how well students learn English, from the quality of academics at a school to paying attention to what individual students need to improve.

The legislative analyst's report, which looked at improvements from 2001 to 2002, estimated it would take "about six years before half of (English learners) are reclassified as fluent. About 40 percent of the kindergarteners still will not be proficient in English when they begin seventh grade. This is a long time."

Robert Manwaring, an education specialist with the legislative analyst, added that even though more students were reaching higher levels of skill on the exam, students learning the language still did poorly on California's regular language test. Across the state, between 3 and 19 percent of English learners grade by grade scored proficient or better, compared with 30 to 39 percent of all students.

Manwaring also said the state Board of Education now expected 51 percent of English learners in each school district to go up one proficiency level on the CELDT each year to meet new federal education standards under No Child Left Behind. The state will issue a report later this spring on whether districts are meeting that standard.

The CELDT results brought good news to Bay Area school districts, where educators rejoiced at the evidence that their efforts to teach students English were paying off -- even in districts where test-score news is usually cause for concern.

In Oakland, for example, the proportion of English learners who scored "early advanced or advanced" leaped from 17 to 36 percent from 2002 to 2003.

Instructional administrators Jessica Evans and Delia Ruiz said the success went well beyond simply teaching students in English.

"I would never learn Japanese just by listening to it," said Ruiz, coordinator of English-language development and reading intervention. "We would like to recognize the teachers' dedication and determination, the students' attendance and the parents' participation."

To Evans, director of elementary education, those weren't just pretty words. When students show up in class, she said, and when teachers diagnose their individual needs and teach what they need to know, students improve.

San Francisco's English learners also leaped forward, with 47 percent scoring in the highest levels, compared with 24 percent the year before.

"I'm very, very excited about it," said Mary Ellen Gallegos, executive director of multilingual programs. "We are very concerned about the children being proficient in English."

Gallegos also credited teaching strategies focusing on the needs of individual students rather than the language of instruction and said it was so because students also improved in the district's bilingual classes, where there is still some instruction in the students' primary language.

"Teachers are more organized, and if they see that the children need more help in vocabulary development, that's what they focus on," Gallegos said. "If they need more comprehension, that's what the teachers focus on. They look at the data, even in our wonderful bilingual programs. And the data informs their instruction."

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