Students raise test scores
The Fresno Bee
March 22, 2004
By Erin Kennedy

Forum Valley students still learning English made bigger strides than their counterparts statewide but still lag slightly on the California English Language Development Test.

Results made public last week show that 43% of the state's 1.4 million English learners scored either early advanced or advanced in English proficiency compared to 34% in 2002. Most school districts in the Valley fell below that.

There were a few notable exceptions. Clovis Unified School District posted 61% of its students as reaching proficiency in English. And Farmersville Unified, which often scores at the bottom on the statewide Academic Performance Index, had 48% of its students making high marks.

Helen Bauer, Farmersville's acting superintendent, attributes the gains -- a 20% increase in those reaching advanced levels -- to intense focus on second-language learners, who are more than half the district's students. "We find our kids are learning faster with English immersion," she said.

Local educators note that the federal No Child Left Behind Act puts increased attention on English learners, holding schools accountable for the progress of each group of students -- poor, minorities, special education students and English learners. Schools that don't move all groups along academically face sanctions and, eventually, government takeover. "Compared to the rest of the nation, California has the greatest number of students whose primary language is not English," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "There is still much to be done to meet the educational needs of our English learners, but we should be quite heartened by the progress that indicates California is on the right track."

Among those making noteworthy gains on the CELDT were California's English learners who have been in the United States for less than a year. Of the 78,364 English learners who first enrolled in school in 2002-03, test scores show that 22% fewer students were at "beginning" levels than when they took the test for the first time.

Fresno County had 40% of students reaching the most advanced levels, while Tulare County had 36% and Madera County had 41% of students reaching proficiency. Countywide gains ranged from 14% in Fresno to 18% in Madera.

Fresno County's bilingual experts attribute the scores to several things, said Armen Bacon, spokeswoman for the county's Office of Education. Under new state and federal accountability regulations, "English learners are being assessed more frequently and their progress toward acquiring English is closely monitored," she said. If students are struggling, immediate intervention is given with after-school and summer programs.

That's the same reason Madera Unified's director of bilingual programs gave for that district's 17% gain in advanced scores over last year. Kathleen Lopes also said all the district's schools except one use English immersion programs.

Fresno Unified, the area's largest district and the fourth-largest in the state, had 38% of its 26,000 English learners scoring at early advanced or advanced, up from 28% last year.

Susan Pappas, Fresno Unified's bilingual coordinator, says the district has focused on getting everyone proficient in English. "This is the first stop in the Valley for a lot of immigrants," she said, noting that Fresno Unified gets 3,000 to 5,000 new students each year who don't speak English.

While most speak Spanish, students speak a total of 60 languages. To keep up, the district employs about 700 bilingual aides, Pappas said.

This is the third year that the state has required school districts to assess all English learners annually with a state-approved test. The test covers listening and speaking skills for kindergarten and first grade, and listening, speaking, reading and writing skills for grades 2-12.

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