San Francisco Chronicle
Tuesday, July 7, 1998
Bilingual Surprise in State Testing
Achievement test scores from two of the Bay Area's largest school districts reveal a surprising result: Graduates of bilingual education programs out- scored native English speakers in most subjects and in most grades.
In San Francisco and San Jose, students who completed bilingual education -- a system of instruction outlawed last month by California voters -- generally performed better than native English-speaking children in reading, math, language and spelling.
The results appeared on the state's new Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) exam, a multiple-choice test that uses a 99-point scale. Third-graders who had graduated from bilingual classrooms in San Francisco, for example, scored 40 percentage points higher in math than their native English-speaking counterparts. On the language portion, bilingual fourth-graders scored 25 points higher than the natives. And in reading, eighth-grade bilingual grads outscored the natives by nine points -- although their reading scores slipped behind in later grades.
Similar but less impressive differences showed up in San Jose. There, for example, fourth-grade bilingual graduates scored 19 points higher than natives in spelling. In the seventh grade, they outscored the natives by seven points in math.
Even Sean Walsh, spokesman for Governor Pete Wilson, who became one of the state's harshest critics of bilingual education in the weeks before the June 3 election, raised his eyebrows.
``It's remarkable,'' he said.
Lest the observation be interpreted as an endorsement of bilingual education, Walsh pointed out that Wilson all along has looked to the new state test as a way to tell what works and what doesn't in public education.
``The governor has never been flatly against programs designed to help kids transition into English,'' Walsh said.
The surprising trend was reversed in San Jose high schools, where the scores of bilingual education graduates slipped one to 16 points behind those of native English speakers. Even those lower scores, however, generally hovered around the national average of 50 points.
Not so surprising were the politics coloring the explanations for the overall performance of the bilingual graduates.
Ron Unz, author of the recently passed Proposition 227 that outlawed bilingual education, declared the phenomenon ``very simple'' to explain.
``You'd expect it,'' he said. ``You're basically comparing the smartest (nonnative speakers) with the average population of regular students.''
Doug Stone, spokesman for state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin, said the nonnatives are not smarter than other students, they've just paid more attention to grammar, spelling and overall academics in their attempts to learn a second language.
Independent testing expert Joan Herman, associate director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Evaluation, called the results ``very promising data'' at a time when the bilingual education battle is not yet over.
Immigrant rights advocates, who call Proposition 227 unconstitutional, sued in federal court last month to have it overturned. A hearing is scheduled for July 15 in San Francisco.
The STAR test also sits at the center of the English-only debate. All test scores -- for every school in all 999 districts across the state -- were supposed to have been released no later than June 30.
But the Oakland and Berkeley school districts won a Superior Court injunction prohibiting state officials from releasing the scores because they included the scores of thousands of children who speak little or no English. The educators say the results are invalid because the students had to take the test in a language they did not understand.
The group in question does not include the graduates of bilingual programs, who speak English.
State law required all students in grades 2 through 11 to take the STAR test in English this spring, whether they understood the language or not.
A hearing is scheduled in San Francisco Superior Court July 16.
Yesterday, lawyers for the state Department of Education and the state Board of Education said they have taken the matter to the state Supreme Court to try and reverse the injunction.
Meanwhile, school districts have been releasing test scores on their own -- some with the scores of non-English-speakers, and some without.
San Jose released its non-English-speaking students' scores yesterday. But these contained no surprises.