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' overall average.
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 like.
"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 English-immersion classes.
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.