On a cool winter morning Nicole Miller circulated through her fourth-grade classroom in this small town in the Salinas Valley, quizzing students on material they’d likely see on state tests in the spring.

“How do you know ‘hit the lights’ is an idiom?” she asked a student.

“ ‘Hit the lights’ is an idiom because if you hit the lights, they break,” the student replied.

Miller smiled. “Good answer!” she said.

The majority of students in Miller’s class began their schooling speaking no English, and idioms often are the last frontier for anyone learning a foreign language.

Many of these students have just mastered the ability to read. But because idioms are heavily represented on California’s fourth-grade test, these 9-year-olds need to learn that “tickled pink” doesn’t mean turning colors and that someone who is “all thumbs” is clumsy.

Helping students reach this more sophisticated understanding of English is a difficult but increasingly urgent task. A decade ago, only 10 percent of Soledad fourth-graders demonstrated proficiency on state reading tests. The vast majority of the students are low-income Hispanics, many of them English-language learners.

By 2010, the percentage had leapt to 43 percent. The district plastered a new slogan on bulletin boards across the district: “We’re cooking!”

The improvement is impressive, but a large gap in proficiency still exists between Soledad’s fourth-graders and the statewide average. Soledad lags behind the rest of the state by 20 percentage points. At the current rate, it will take Soledad’s students at least another decade to catch up.

In many ways, Soledad’s struggles mirror those of the state as a whole, which has one of the nation’s biggest gaps in reading performance between Hispanics and whites.

By its own measure, the California Standards Test, the state has made some progress in closing that gap. In 2010, about half of Hispanic students were proficient on the fourth-grade English language arts test, up from just a quarter in 2003. The proficiency gap between Hispanics and whites shrank by 7 points.

California’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, reveals a bleaker picture.

Only 12 percent of Hispanic fourth-graders in California were proficient in reading on that test in 2009, which places them behind every state in the nation except for Utah and Minnesota. On this test, the proficiency gap between Hispanic and white students actually grew slightly over the past decade.

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