About one-third of California's public school students who previously had limited English skills showed success in learning to read, write and speak English this school year, a significant improvement over last school year, according to test results released Tuesday.
Many teachers and school administrators said the gains reflect better teacher training and the switch to English immersion for most immigrant students under Proposition 227. That 1998 voter initiative mandated English instruction statewide and put sharp limits on bilingual education.
The statistics show that 32% of the limited-English students -- or more than 275,000 schoolchildren -- have met the minimum standards on a test of English grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension and other skills.
That is nearly triple the figure from tests in the 2001-02 school year.
"Give us a child and let us teach them English from Day 1 and we'll have them for life," said Martha Trevino Powell, the principal of Aldama Elementary School in northeast Los Angeles, where nearly three-quarters of the students are still learning English.
The statistics released Tuesday were drawn from the California English Language Development Test, given to about 1.3 million students whose families speak a language other than English.
Most of the limited-English students come from homes where Spanish is the first language.
The state provided the scores of 860,000 students who took the test both years.
The results showed the 275,000 students scoring at the "early advanced" and "advanced" levels on the exam -- the levels considered to demonstrate proficiency.
The state said schools should consider switching the status of these students to "fluent English proficient," which makes it easier for them to gain access to higher-level courses in various subjects.
Without such relabeling, these students receive extra help in learning English. But separate information from the state showed that only a small percentage of immigrant students who do well on the test are reclassified as fluent enough in English to gain entrance to the most rigorous courses their schools offer.
Educators and some state officials said the schools need to do a better job of identifying those immigrant students who are ready to shed their limited-English label.
Schools sometimes drag their feet because of the extra funding they receive for English-learners' teachers, aides and other services, those critics say.
"Schools and teachers need to take a very hard look at their past practices and past assumptions to make sure that neither financial incentives nor ideology are creating barriers for these students," said Theresa Garcia, an assistant secretary for education in Sacramento.
School administrators said their decisions are not motivated by money. English proficiency is only one of several criteria they must consider when deciding whether to remove a student's limited-English tag, they said.
Schools also are required to weigh students' grades, state achievement tests scores and teachers' recommendations, among other things.
"There are a lot of different roadblocks to pass," said Lloyd Houske, the principal of Cahuenga Elementary School in Los Angeles, where 30% of the English-learners were deemed proficient in English this year but where 10% or fewer have successfully shed their limited-English label in each of the past five years.
According to the state's data, English-learners in urban and suburban districts alike made similar progress over the past two years.
In Los Angeles County, for instance, just 9% of the students understood English well in the 2001-02 school year. That jumped to 31% in the 2002-03 school year.
Similarly, 10% of English-learners in Orange County had a command of English two years ago, but 31% reached that mark this year.
And in Ventura County, the figures jumped from 1% to 30% over the same period.
Proponents of Proposition 227 said the results vindicated the controversial measure.
"The numbers seem extremely encouraging about the academic progress being made by the limited-English students in California," said Ron Unz, the primary backer of Proposition 227.
"It's hard to say that getting rid of bilingual education did any harm."
Those who favor a bilingual approach said the results offer little evidence about the initiative's efficacy.
"It tells us kids are learning English, but it doesn't tell us how well they are doing academically," said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, a spokeswoman for Californians Together, a statewide coalition of education and civil rights groups that favor instruction in a student's primary language.
State officials shied away from the politically sensitive Proposition 227. They attributed the improvement to better training and to schools closely adhering to the state's new academic standards.
"These results are exciting for our entire state," said Jack O'Connell, state superintendent of public instruction.
"They show that public education for all our students is on the right track."