Primary-language testing key to progress
Ventura County Star
June 17, 2005
By Denis O'Leary

For close to 25 years, the Oxnard School District has operated under a multitrack year-round school year. Placing four sets of students into three classrooms was once accepted because it was claimed students would forget less in short vacations. The result is that the week before and after a vacation have become a time of packing and unpacking boxes.

Cost savings had been cited as a major factor in this overlapping schedule. Districts were offered funds to offset extra costs in running a year-round schedule. The state saved money because funds for building new schools and keeping up infrastructure were cut off. Today, the OSD gets 20 cents on the dollar promised to offset costs.

All multitrack districts in California have a majority minority-student population. All are being spotlighted with the high-stakes national academic testing. All in turn are being threatened with a decrease of funding and possible takeover if they don't meet new academic standards.

The OSD has adopted a policy that it will move away from the multitrack school year. The board of trustees has passed a plan that would place four schools on a single track this next academic year, review which schools can switch over to a single track in future years and work to make the entire district single track at some point. I expect this single move, though it will not be completed for several years, will be the one item we, as a district, can make to improve academics, morale and infrastructure.

The second issue I would argue is our primary objective to advance our community through academics. It would seem this is also the purpose of the federally mandated (and underfunded) No Child Left Behind Act. Our students are not doing well on the national test; in fact, the test has been changed by the state Board of Education to target a student population like Oxnard's for failure.

The OSD is mandated to follow the 1998 law, which cited one methodology (English immersion) over bilingual education. Voters agreed they liked the proposed "common sense," English-only instruction, which was said to only take one year for all students to become English fluent. The state board had at that time decided the NCLB tests would only be implemented in English. After all, all students were to become English fluent by June 1999.

With 92 percent of California's English-learner population in the touted English immersion classes, a census by the state Legislative Analyst's Office (February 2004) shows it is taking 6.7 years for only half of English learners to become English fluent. California's English-learner student population has increased from 806,419 to 1,599,542 since Proposition 227 passed in 1998.

Today, only 8 percent of the state's student population is enrolled in bilingual instruction. Yes, Proposition 227 did allow for parental choice, and bilingual education is not only legal, but also popular with parents because it shows better results. Most districts deny the mandated parental choice; the OSD does in fact follow the law.

The OSD has joined a lawsuit that will require the state to test for academic knowledge in the non-English-fluent students' first language. NCLB allows for primary-language testing. Texas, Florida, New York, Arizona and 10 other states already test in the students' primary language.

Crowding four classes into three classrooms and not keeping up schools because of the lack of funds has created a climate of warehousing children in rundown schools. I trust our employees are qualified to advance students when given the proper tools. A single-track school year will remove obstacles to a better education. We need to support our teachers and staff. Naturally, better pay and benefits are also necessary.

Testing students in their primary language will not take our students to the 90th percentile. Primary-language testing will, on the other hand, allow us to see where students are in academics and what we need to teach them to advance. Let's give these students academic knowledge while they become English-fluent. The final result will be an English-speaking population, which will compete for good jobs and serve our community because they have obtained a solid base in academics. We shouldn't expect anything less.

-- Denis O'Leary, of Oxnard, is a trustee with the Oxnard School District.