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Students Learning English Post Major Advances

Test scores illustrate significant gains in fluency for second year in a row, officials say.

March 19, 2004|Duke Helfand and Jean Merl | Times Staff Writers

California students who are still learning English have made significant strides in mastering the language for the second year in a row, according to test scores released Thursday.

Forty-three percent of the state's 1.4 million students who speak English as a second language demonstrated proficiency in 2003 on English tests of reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. In 2002, 34% of such students had reached the proficient level, and the figure was 25% in 2001, the first year the California English Language Development Test was given.

The Los Angeles Unified School District's English-learning students overall mirrored counterparts around the state -- 42% of them reached proficiency levels in 2003, up from 29% in 2002 and 16% in 2001. Thirty-nine percent of the district's elementary students learning English attained proficiency, as did 48% of middle school and 47% of high school students.

State and local education leaders welcomed the latest scores, saying California's academic standards have focused attention on students with limited English abilities.

"This improvement represents a real success story," Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction, told a news conference Thursday at Buchanan Street Elementary School in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. "We clearly know we are on the right track."

Many educators also credited better teacher training and the change to instruction mandated by Proposition 227 in 1998. That voter initiative put sharp limits on bilingual education, allowing students to learn in their native languages only when their parents asked for waivers from the law.

Despite California's students' improving grasp of English, they still fared poorly on more general academic tests of English grammar and math.

Just 10% of students statewide who are still learning English were considered proficient in English as an academic subject last year, according to tests taken by all students in California; that represented a small increase from the year before. Only 15% were proficient in math, the same figure as the year before.

Still, Los Angeles school leaders touted the results of the Language Development Test in two news conferences Thursday.

School board President Jose Huizar and board member David Tokofsky joined O'Connell at Buchanan Street Elementary School in the morning. Huizar and several other board members appeared with Supt. Roy Romer later in the day at the school district's downtown headquarters.

Romer said the scores represented "outstanding progress." Huizar said the test results will lead to "a real closing of the achievement gap" that separates Latino academic achievement results from whites and Asians.

Students were deemed proficient because they reached the early advanced and advanced levels on the California English Language Development Test. Children at those two levels are ready to be reclassified as being fluent English speakers, state officials said. But the decision over when to reclassify students as fluent in English is up to schools and districts, which also base their decisions on grades, teacher evaluations, parent opinions and student performance on yet other state tests in English and reading.

"Folks want to be certain that they are not pulling kids out [of English language development programs] too soon, so that they can sustain their academic achievement," said Deb Sigman, director of the standards and assessment division at the California Department of Education.

Complete results of the language testing are available on the Internet at

Richard O'Reilly, Times director of computer analysis, contributed to this report.

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