Los Angeles Times
Wednesday, July 22, 1998
Success in Any Language
Experts seek to explain how certain groups of bilingual students
in L.A. County and elsewhere outscored English-only pupils on Stanford
By NICK ANDERSON, Times Staff Writer
In many public schools in Los Angeles County and other urban areas of
California, select groups of bilingual students outscored their "English
only" peers on this year's state tests of reading and math.
Some of the better scores in these school
districts were turned in by two types of students: those who entered their
school systems already fluent in English, even though it was not their
native language, and those who became fluent while in school, advancing
from the ranks of the "limited English proficient."
Consider a sampling of scores on the test
of fourth-grade reading skills:
* In Los Angeles Unified School District,
those who had become fluent after having been branded "limited English"
scored at the 49th percentile. That's much higher than the 35th percentile
average of students who came from families that speak only English.
* Similar gaps were found in San Jose Unified
School District (the 64th percentile compared to the 58th), San Francisco
Unified (66th compared to 49th) and Garden Grove Unified in Orange County
(71st compared to 48th).
The tantalizing findings are drawing notice
among educators as a counterpoint to the extremely low marks posted in
many school districts by students who are not fluent in English.
"It's counter to the common stereotype
that we're not doing anything good with these children," said Joan
Herman, associate director of the Center for Research on Evaluation Standards
and Student Testing at UCLA.
But the relative success of the two types
of bilingual students, especially in urban areas, is largely predictable--just
as is the poor showing of those who speak limited English.
One reason is pure statistics. The very criteria
used to classify these students as fluent in English guarantees that they
are capable in the classroom.
How do they win the "fluent" designation?
Often by taking--and scoring reasonably well on--standardized tests.
Many school systems require such students
to score at the 36th percentile in language skills to be declared fluent.
In Los Angeles Unified, that's considerably higher than the districts'
Educators suggest the "successful"
bilingual students are likely to come from households with advantages not
shared by many classmates. Certainly, students entering the school system
fluent in two languages are likely to have had help from mom and dad. They
may live in homes that can afford books, newspaper subscriptions and the
"I'd like to know who these children
are," said Linda Kaminski, testing coordinator for Glendale Unified
School District, referring to the success stories. "One
possibility is that they are students who have access to more language,
live in neighborhoods where English is spoken more, speak more with their
peers in English. These are unknowns."
That they perform better than their English-only
peers in some districts may reflect more on those other students--and the
social and economic problems they face.
Indeed, when you look beyond select urban
districts, the "successful" bilingual students--those who have
made the transition to English fluency at home or at school--no longer
outpace English-only students the same way.
New statewide data obtained by The Times
show that the gap between the successful bilingual students and the English-only
students virtually disappears when all of California's students are averaged
together. The students whom schools had successfully taught English as
a second language scored on the fourth grade reading test at the 51st percentile
and the English-only students at the 50th.
Both were right at the national average,
in other words.
More than 4.1 million California students
from grades two to 11 took the Stanford 9 exams this past spring, making
it the most ambitious testing effort in state history.
Tests in grades two to eight covered reading,
written expression, math and spelling. In grades nine to 11, they covered
reading, written expression, math, science and social sciences.
The tests were given only in English, and
virtually all students were supposed to take them, no matter what their
language abilities. Parents could request that their children be exempted,
however, and some activist groups encouraged limited-English students to
use the waivers to avoid taking the test.
Still, state officials hope the scores will
shed some light on how California schools are doing in their struggle to
teach English to 1.4 million students who are not fluent. That issue has
been magnified since June 2, when voters approved Proposition 227, the
initiative to replace most bilingual education programs in the state with
Later this summer, officials plan to analyze
the scores by ethnicity, which could reveal differing patterns of achievement
by various groups. The analysis may also indicate how much the encouraging
performance of the English-fluent bilingual students is influenced by the
well-documented success of Asian Americans on standardized tests.
Though most of the attention in public debates
over bilingual education has focused on limited-English students, there
are a large number who go on to achieve fluency.
In Los Angeles County, about 11% of the test-takers
were students who entered the school system fluent in both English and
another language. They generally did better on the Stanford 9 than children
who grew up speaking only English. That was the case in every grade in
math and in all but the high school grades in reading.
Another 10% of the test-takers in the county
were students who were reclassified as fluent in English during their school
years. They too bettered or equaled their English-only counterparts in
nearly every grade in math. In reading, they repeated that performance
in grades two through five.
English-only students made up about 40% of
the county's test-takers and limited-English students about 27%. The language
ability of the other 12% was unknown.
In Los Angeles Unified, the nation's second-largest
school district with 681,000 students, reading scores for the successful
bilingual students were better or on par with those of English-only students
in most grades.
But percentile rankings for the district's
limited-English children lagged badly, falling into the single digits in
high school reading.
Many of the district's limited-English students
had been in bilingual classes at some point in their schooling. Those classes
emphasize teaching students in their native language in the early grades,
most often in Spanish, and gradually phase into instruction in English.
Even so, it's hard to quickly draw conclusions
from the test data. Both opponents and advocates of bilingual education--usually
quick to put their own spin on events--have been cautious in this case.
Reynaldo Macias, an education professor at
UC Santa Barbara, said that a promising showing by some bilingual students
might indicate that bilingual education is working well--"assuming
that those kids were in prior bilingual programs."
But that, too, is up in the air. While three
of 10 limited-English children in California are in bilingual education
each year, the other 70% are either in programs that already stress English
immersion or are students who get little special attention at all in learning
English--they're left to sink or swim on their own.
In San Francisco, one researcher this year
found that students who had gained English fluency through the school system
not only tended to outscore their English-only peers on standardized tests
but also had better grades and attendance rates. J. David Ramirez, a professor
of education at Cal State Long Beach, suggested that "the cognitive
benefits of multilingualism" explained the trend in his study, which
was based on the records of 12,000 students from 1994-95 to 1996-97.
Most school officials say they will have
to take apart the new test data school by school, class by class--perhaps
even student by student--before they can draw conclusions.
Nevertheless, Brad Sales, a spokesman for
Los Angeles Unified, called the pattern of scores for the successful bilingual
"It is conceivable that we're doing
something in the bilingual programs that is creating a boost, particularly
in the early grades," Sales said. But it will take "substantial
research and time," he added, "to make that determination with
Times staff writers Doug Smith and Tina Nguyen contributed to this report.
In Los Angeles County, about 11% of the test-takers were students who
entered the school system fluent in both English and another language.
They generally did better on the Stanford 9 than children who grew up speaking
only English. That was the case in every grade in math and in all but the
high school grades in reading.
Successful Bilingual Students
Results from the new statewide standardized public school tests--the Stanford
9 exams--showthat some bilingual students in urban areas outperformed their
English-only counterparts in reading and math. Statewide, however, the
students who were raised speaking onl English tended to do as well or better.
Scoring: All scores are expressed on a 99-point percentage scale,
with 50 being the average.
Key: The charts show the scores for three categories of students:
English only: Students who speak no other language at home.
FEP: Students who speak another language at home but entered their
school district as "fluent English-proficient."
R-FEP: Students who speak another language and were classified as
"limited English-proficient" at first but were reclassified as
fluent in English during their school yeas.
Average Scores on Stanford 9 Tests, 1998
| English only
| English only
| English only
| English only
| English only
| English only
About 4.1 million students from grades 2 to 11 took the Stanford 9
tests last spring--more than 1 million in Los Angeles County alone. Only
certain students in special education programs or those whose parents objected
were exempt. Chart at right shows the percentage of students who took the
test in Los Angeles County, by language ability.
English only: 40%
LEP (Limited English- proficient): 27%
* * * Source: Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement reports of Stanford