When California voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998, opponents of the measure predicted that it would be a disaster for English learners. But according to the latest test scores, the new focus on English fluency is producing remarkable improvements.
The law required California schools to abandon so-called “transitional bilingual education programs” that taught immigrant students predominantly – and often exclusively – in their non-English, native languages. In their place, it called for implementing English immersion programs designed to close the language gap in one year.
Proposition 227’s implementation statewide has been uneven by all accounts. But the emphasis on early English fluency has been felt across California, and has changed the way school districts educate English learners. The state’s latest test scores, announced in February, demonstrate major gains in English fluency for the third year in a row.
Statewide, 47 percent of English learners scored in the top two categories of English proficiency on the California English Language Development Test for 2004. In 2003, 43 percent scored in the top two categories, as did 34 percent in 2002 and 25 percent in 2001. Combined, this shows an improvement of 22 percentage points in the last four years.
California State Superintendent Jack O’Connell heralded the improvements. “These results are a clear indication that statewide efforts to help all English learners learn English as quickly as possible are working,” said O’Connell. “This is so important because as English learners achieve greater proficiency in English, they are more likely to reach higher academic levels in all their subjects.”
Driving the increase were substantial gains in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest. The percentage of 7th and 8th grade English learners in Los Angeles scoring in the top two categories jumped by 43 percentage points since 2001, and every grade level increased by at least 17 points. In contrast, school districts where resistance to Proposition 227 has been vigorous, including Northern California’s Alum Rock Elementary and San Jose Unified, showed increases below the state average.
In announcing the test scores in February, Superintendent O’Connell noted another, potentially troubling trend related to English learners. The most recent figures indicate a growing gap between the number of English learners testing “fluent” in English and the number officially reclassified as fluent. While 43 percent of English learners demonstrated fluent English proficiency on the CELDT in 2004, only 8.3 percent had been reclassified as fluent by their school districts.
“I am concerned about this because English learners may not have full access to rigorous academic courses,” said O’Connell. He noted that he is urging school districts to review their reclassifying and educational procedures for English learners when they become fluent in English.
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