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Officials Plan to Learn From ESL Students’ Test Results

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Weeks before 4 million California children penciled in the answers to the Stanford 9 exam, educators statewide sounded an alarm that students who aren’t fluent in English should be exempted. All anyone would learn, they said, is that kids who don’t speak or read English don’t do well on tests in English.

Some school officials said they would not give the test to those children, even if it meant defying the law. Others complied, but with protests.

Less than a week after the scores were made public--and the non-fluent students did as poorly as predicted--some of the very educators who argued against testing those students now say the data will be useful.

“I’m not one who’s throwing the whole thing out the window and calling it wrong,” said Al Mijares, superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District. In the Santa Ana schools, 71% of the 50,000 students enrolled lack English fluency. “In some cases, the information can be valuable for us.”

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Ignoring the problems shown by the low test scores would do a disservice to limited-English students in future years when they will be expected to compete in other academic settings and, eventually, the job market.

“There’s a problem because we’re expecting them to handle a high school curriculum,” apply to college and get a job, Mijares said. “The challenges are overwhelming.”

For the first time in four years, California children in grades two through 11 were given a standardized test this spring in reading, math and other essential skills.

Of the 4.1 million students who took the exam, 19% have limited English skills, but that figure goes up to 25% in Orange County.

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Students in the county, as a whole, scored above the national median--or the 50th percentile--in math and language and slightly below in reading and spelling. But those students whose native language is not English did not score higher than the 30th percentile on any subject.

“The public should hold our feet to the fire,” said Roberta A. Thompson, superintendent of the Anaheim City School District. “We need to be accountable for how these kids are doing.”

None of the district’s 7,152 limited-English students who were tested scored above the 20th percentile.

The poor showing by California students who aren’t fluent proves that bilingual education has failed to teach them to understand the language, Ron Unz said. The Silicon Valley businessman sponsored the recently passed statewide initiative to replace native-language instruction with classes taught in English.

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“That really is a tremendous argument that the status quo is an utter disaster,” Unz said. “The overwhelming majority of these students have been in school for a period of years.”

School administrators rebut his claim. They say there’s no way to tell how many of those students are new arrivals to this country and how many have been attending California public schools for several years.

“The information becomes less meaningful because of it,” Thompson said. “Unless you measure kids starting from the same place,” the test results can’t be a true measure of student achievement.

An estimated 7,000 students of the 20,000 enrolled move in or out of the school district in a six-month period, she said.

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Jim Cox, an educational testing consultant in Anaheim, also said the scores are unreliable because the test is composed of multiple-choice questions. A student will answer a certain number of questions correctly by random guessing and not because of knowledge of the subject tested, he said.

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Despite that, officials in Capistrano Unified and Santa Ana Unified said test results provide a base of information to gauge improvement in future years, for students who have limited English skills as well as fluent students.

Curriculum changes may also be in the offing, but much of that is being driven by the anti-bilingual-education initiative.

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California schools must begin to comply with Proposition 227 by Aug. 3. Mijares, of the Santa Ana district, said the district is intensely working toward a full immersion program, but native-language instruction is still widespread in classrooms there.

Others have quietly been preparing for the new approach.

“We’re not doing a wonderful job with these youngsters,” said interim Supt. Robert Francy of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, where 28% of the district’s 20,000 students are not proficient in English.

“If bilingual education has failed, then we’ve got to try something else. We’re committed to doing that with our immersion programs.”

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