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Language Test Samples Displayed Publicly For California Parents

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Did the author Maxine Hong Kingston's Chinese mother really cut her daughter's tongue to keep her from being tongue-tied or was the author's reminiscence in The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts merely a literary device?

In The Horned Toad, a story about a young man's evolving relationship with his Spanish-speaking grandmother, how did the boy's or his father's thoughts and feelings change from the beginning to the end?

Those were some of the questions 10th-grade students in California public schools were asked as part of the state's controversial English/language-arts assessment that was administered last spring.

In a bid to win public support for--and assuage concerns about--California's pioneering assessment system, state education officials last month released samples of the examinations administered to 10th, 8th, and 4th graders.

Parents and others can review the exams at 40 sites throughout California and at the state education department's office in Washington. The tests and accompanying materials will be available for inspection until Aug. 18.

Some parents and conservative religious and political groups have resisted the California Learning Assessment System, known as CLAS. (See Education Week, May 4, 1994.)

Critics contended that the test questions were designed to elicit private information about students and their families, which is prohibited by state law.

Opponents also claimed that the exams depicted graphic violence and promoted values that were antithetical to their own.

Supporters of CLAS denied the allegations and asserted that critics were spreading misinformation.

But for months state officials refused to release the tests, saying that the assessment needed to remain confidential to insure its integrity.

Ultimately, the officials relented and said they would allow the public to view parts of the tests for which they could find substitutes for next year's students.

Measuring Higher Skills

Educators throughout the country are monitoring the situation because the California assessment is one of the first to try to measure higher-level thinking skills.

Unlike widely used multiple-choice exams, the California tests ask students to cite their opinions and to reason, to compare and contrast, and to analyze, interpret, and persuade, as well as demonstrate other reading and writing skills.

The tests are divided into several sections. After reading an excerpt, students are asked to respond to a question on which they will be evaluated for their reading ability. A second section asks them to work in groups; the third is designed to gauge their writing ability. (See box, this page.)

Although some violent incidents are depicted in the reading excerpts, such as a street fight in Richard Wright's Black Boy, the scenes are not graphic.

Nor do the tests compel students to divulge private information, although they do provide students the opportunity to "write anything else you want about your understanding of this excerpt--what it means to you, what it reminds you of, how it relates to your own life, or whatever else you think is important about this story.''

Many of the selections illustrate vignettes from or about the lives of people from racial and ethnic minorities or about people who are unusual in some way.

In Martha Brooks's What I Want To Be When I Grow Up, a 14-year-old boy on a city bus ride to the orthodontist encounters people who are different from him. A writing assignment based on the story asks 8th graders to write about a person they consider to be different and how that person's actions may have influenced the student.

The public display of the questions is part of the state's effort to alleviate some of the controversy surrounding CLAS. Forms for suggestions and responses are available at the various display sites.

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