San Jose Mercury News

Wednesday, July 8, 1998

English as 2nd Tongue Often Not Hindrance
School test rankings may surprise some
By LORI ARATANI, Mercury News Staff Writer

Recently released scores on California's newest statewide exam show that in some cases, students who learn English as a second language outperform native English-speakers.

That may sound contrarian, but those who study achievement among immigrant students aren't surprised; they say several studies over the past decade show that these students often do as well as, if not better than, their U.S.-born peers.

Last spring, more than 4 million students in grades 2 through 11 took the Stanford 9, a commercial, fill-in-the-bubble test published by Harcourt Brace. It was the first time in four years that students throughout California had taken the same exam.

Researchers and educators caution against drawing too many conclusions based on test scores, since the information available from California's State Testing and Reporting (STAR) program is limited and does not yet include important demographic data necessary for a full analysis.

Statewide scores for English-speaking students were released last week, but a series of court challenges has delayed state officials from releasing the scores of limited-English-proficient students. The legal challenges have led to confusion in some local districts, with a handful releasing all scores and others refusing to release any.

Still, the information that has been released so far shows some interesting trends:

  •  In Santa Clara County, students who learned English as a second language outscored students who spoke only English in every area except reading in the seventh and eighth grades.
  •  In spelling, second-graders in Santa Clara County who learned English as a second language scored in the 81st percentile; native English-speakers scored in the 54th percentile.
  •  In the Evergreen School District in San Jose, second-graders who learned English as a second language scored in the 89th percentile in reading; English-only second-graders scored in the 65th percentile.
  • ``I'm not surprised,'' said Maryann Cavallo, assistant superintendent for instruction in the Evergreen School District. ``It's always been a pattern in our district.''

    Cavallo said part of the reason may be that students who are able to learn multiple languages at an early age are also better able to develop other learning skills. And people may forget that even though a child speaks English, that alone does not ensure academic success.

    Research has shown that factors such as poverty, transiency and family educational background are significant influences on children.

    ``A student may come to school speaking English, but they may also come not knowing how to read or write,'' Cavallo said. ``That makes a difference.''

    Charlene Rivera, director of the Center for Equity and Excellence in Education at George Washington University, said she was not surprised that immigrant students outperformed U.S.-born children but that she would need more information before drawing any conclusions about why that might be.

    Maureen Munroe, spokeswoman for the San Jose Unified School District, said administrators plan to do more in-depth analysis before drawing conclusions about student performance.

    ``We're not convinced this early data is very accurate,'' she added. ``Lots of people have different theories -- but how it comes down like this is still a bit of a mystery.''

    There is a body of research that does support the idea that immigrant students -- despite language barriers -- can succeed and, at times, outperform their U.S.-born peers.

    According to a 1996 study published by the RAND Institute in Santa Monica, immigrant students were more likely than U.S.-born students to take advanced courses in high school, to take ACT and SAT tests and to go to college. They are also more likely to stay in college for four years.

    Immigrant students appear to be ``more motivated, have higher aspirations and are willing to work harder than other students,'' the study concluded.

    Still, ``I don't think we've been able to attribute it to any one thing,'' said Georges Vernez, director of RAND's Center for Research on Immigration.

    Local educators say that students who don't speak English are often required to meet rigid academic standards before they can be reclassified as fluent in English. That extra hurdle often means that those students are likely to perform as well as or better than their English-speaking peers who do not have to take that extra step.

    Rivera said studies show that students taught in their native language may do better in areas such as mathematics and reading than those taught using other approaches. That's because they can transfer the lessons and skills they've already mastered once they move into an English classroom.

    But whether advocates of bilingual education can use the test results as proof that their approach works remains to be seen. The information released did not specify whether children were taught in bilingual classrooms.

    ``It's interesting,'' Rivera said. ``I'd be anxious to see more data.''

    Mercury News Staff Writer Michael Bazeley contributed to this report.