New test shows English fluency gap in S.F. schools

A newly refined statewide exam designed to test how well immigrant students are learning English reveals that fewer students are gaining fluency than thought, education leaders announced Thursday.

Students new to English take the California English Language Development Test each year to determine how well they read, write, speak and understand the language — especially in the classroom. In 2006-07, the California Department of Education toughened the standards in the hope of making the test “a more accurate portrayal of students’ abilities,” state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell said Thursday.

While statewide results showed a slight increase in English-learning students who scored as “early advanced” or “advanced” on the test — 32 percent, compared with 30 percent in 2005-06 — fewer students are reaching those benchmarks, O’Connell said.

In the San Francisco Unified School District, that slip was most pronounced among high school students, where 31 percent scored at those advanced levels and 69 percent scored at lower levels. However, it can take five to seven years for students starting from a beginner level to gain full fluency, California testing director Deb Sigman said, noting that high school students get four.

“We get newcomer high school students with a variety of education levels, and it’s absolutely a major factor,” said Gentle Blythe, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Unified School District. “Also, at the high school level, there are a lot more words with multiple meanings, which makes English-language learning that much more challenging.”

Students may still graduate if they aren’t reclassified as fluent — a benchmark measured by a student’s CELDT scores, teacher and parent opinion, and their California Standards Test score, said Suanna Gilman-Ponce, director of English-language learning at Sequoia High School District.

“[F]or students who are beginners, and our system is for them to complete a high school education in four years, this is a huge challenge,” Gilman-Ponce said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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