Non-English speakers' test scores improving
San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Carrie Sturrock, Chronicle Staff Writer

Statewide test results show more non-English-speaking students are learning the language each year in California public schools, a promising trend that educators say is chipping away at one of the biggest challenges they face.

Of the 1.3 million students who took the California English Language Development Test, 47 percent scored at "early advanced or advanced" in 2004, compared with 43 percent in 2003.

In a state where one quarter of students in kindergarten through 12th grade speak little English, education leaders say this bodes well for the students' future academic success.

The latest results were released Tuesday.

In 2001 -- the first time the state measured students' skill at writing, listening, reading and speaking English -- 25 percent of students scored at early advanced or above. The test measures five levels from beginning to advanced.

"Clearly, we're moving in the right direction," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "These results are a clear indication that our English learners are making progress toward fluency."

Bay Area school districts tended to follow the statewide trend in student improvement: San Francisco saw a 5 percentage point increase to 50 percent scoring "early advanced or advanced." Across the bay, West Contra Costa Unified saw a 4-point increase to 45 percent while Oakland dipped 2 points to 35 percent. Mount Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County increased three points to 46 percent on the test.

While O'Connell praised the increase in students learning English, he questioned how school districts evaluate those students.

California has had only a slight increase in the percentage of students reclassified as fluent by their school districts: from 7.7 percent in 2003 to 8.3 percent in 2004. If students aren't reclassified, it can limit their access to things such as Advanced Placement courses. Doing well on the English language test doesn't mean a student should automatically be reclassified -- grades and other factors come into play -- but the gap is too wide, O'Connell said.

"I'm going to urge California school districts to review their classifying procedures."

While state education leaders touted the increase in students scoring well, the nonpartisan state legislative analyst questioned whether the test provides much useful data. The scores released Tuesday don't reflect how well the same group of students did from one year to the next -- it just tests whomever is classified as an English learner that year.

"So what you have is this shifting group of kids taking the test each year," said senior analyst Paul Warren, which makes it impossible to track the progress of individual students. "The measure of how our kids are achieving is whether they're making gains."

The state Department of Education will address those concerns in part when it releases an accountability report in May showing the percentage of students making annual progress on learning English, said Jeanette Ganahl, an education program consultant for the English language test. She nevertheless believes the data are useful.

"It tells the public that schools are paying more attention to teaching the standards and that students are progressing in listening, speaking, reading and writing," Ganahl said.

O'Connell credited the steady increase in students scoring well to educators' greater familiarity with English language development standards as well as professional development for teachers. Asked to assess the impact the controversial Proposition 227 -- which eliminated bilingual education after voters overwhelmingly approved it in 1998 -- O'Connell said he wouldn't venture a guess.

Widely condemned by teachers, Prop. 227 and its success or failure is a highly sensitive political issue.

Ron Unz, the author of the initiative, said he doesn't know enough about the English language test to say whether Prop. 227 has contributed to the steady increase in students learning English, but found the results encouraging.

"I think you can say ... there seems to be a dramatic and rapid improvement in the performance of California's immigrant students," Unz said.

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