Arizona Republic

Thursday, August 24, 2000

Test Scores Don't Make Case for Banning Bilingual Ed
By O. RICARDO PIMENTEL, The Arizona Republic

You can quit sending me that New York Times piece trumpeting new test scores in California as proof positive that banning bilingual education is the right thing to do here in Arizona.

Californians banned bilingual ed two years ago with Proposition 227. Arizonans have an initiative on the November ballot that would accomplish the same thing.

The problem: The California test scores don't prove much of anything, and the folks seizing on them know it or, if they don't, should.

Let's walk through it again. These test scores mimic last year's increases in reading, math and language in California. And just like then, these scores don't make the case one way or the other for ending bilingual education.

It does make good press, however.

Here are the key points made in an analysis by experts at Stanford University, including renowned expert Kenji Hakuta. 

The increases in scores are across the board.

That means students with limited English proficiency got better scores, but so did all other students, particularly in the lower grades. And the increases are in virtually identical patterns.

In other words, teachers are likely drilling the kids - Spanish and English speakers - with the test. The first years of any new test anywhere generally shows good increases.

The scores increased in schools that never had bilingual ed, so there's no connection to Proposition 227.

The scores increased in school districts that retained bilingual ed.

(By the way - again - only about 20 percent of California's students with limited English proficiency were enrolled in bilingual ed before the initiative. Now it's about 13 percent.)

These test scores simply are inadequate tools for measuring the effectiveness of California's structured immersion plan. In California, non-English-speaking kids are allowed one year of intensive English instruction and then are sent into the mainstream.

The California test more effectively measures the reading, language and math skills of native English speakers. For non-English speakers, it is merely measuring how well these kids, particularly in the lower grades, have been drilled in decoding and in phonics, skills that don't necessarily tell us anything about comprehension.

In trumpeting these scores, the anti-bilingual education folks are hanging their hats on alleged claims by initiative opponents that catastrophe would result if the initiative passed.

They're saying, "OK, it hasn't been catastrophic, so we must be right."

Well, sometimes harm is years in the making.

And, besides, the argument is a double-edged sword. These folks are trumpeting scores that, if we use their yardstick, identify these kids as seriously underperforming. No way, shape or form are they ready for the mainstream.

And isn't that what the Proposition 227 folks told us banning bilingual ed would fix?

Guess what? It's not fixed. In fact, it's relatively unchanged.

In fact, from 1997 to 2000, the number of kids "re-designated" - deemed now to be sufficiently proficient in English - has increased by only 1.1 percent.

But here's the thing: I would no more trust voters - or the ones whipping them up - to dictate education policy to educators than I would trust them to dictate medical procedures to doctors.