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Wilson Vows Veto To Block Test Program

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California will be without a statewide testing program if Gov. Pete Wilson vetoes a bill to reauthorize the system, as expected.

Before adjourning for the year, lawmakers approved a bill last week that aims to strengthen one of the nation's most innovative--and embattled--student assessments. But Maureen DiMarco, the Governor's education adviser, said: "I don't think the Governor will sign it."

If she is right, the California Comprehensive Testing Program--formerly known as the California Learning Assessment System, or CLAS--will grind to a halt on Dec. 31 and students in grades K-12 will not take any statewide tests next spring.

The legislature's next chance to reauthorize the program will come when it convenes in January.

The Governor has 30 days from Aug. 31, when the Senate adopted the bill, to decide whether to veto it.

Mr. Wilson has threatened a veto because the measure would not allow students to obtain individual test scores.

Ms. DiMarco also said it does not insure an adequate balance between performance tasks designed to measure whether students can apply what they know and more traditional, multiple-choice questions that assess basic skills.

California administered the CLAS tests in reading, writing, and mathematics to about a million 4th, 8th, and 12th graders for the first time in 1993. The pioneering exams ask students to solve problems in their own words rather than merely fill in bubbles on multiple-choice answer sheets.

But the program got off to a rocky start. Some parents charged that the tests pried into their children's private lives and beliefs. Others questioned the accuracy and reliability of test results. (See Education Week, May 4, 1994.)

In May, Mr. Wilson put a hold on $26.4 million that had been earmarked to operate the program. The Governor said he would not release the money until the legislature enacted changes to allay his concerns. He also asked the state auditor to examine the cost and development of the exams.

That audit, released last month, found that Hispanics, Asian-Americans, and men were underrepresented on the teams that developed test questions and reviewed them for cultural, ethnic, and gender bias. It blamed the problem on a lack of written procedures for selecting team members.

The state education department said its selection process was fair, although officials agreed to put the procedures in writing. They also asserted that there is a shortage of minority teachers to serve on the teams that write test items.

'Uncharted Waters'

But a more fundamental question is whether the state has the technology to conduct such innovative measures on a large scale and insure their reliability.

In April, William D. Dawson, the acting state superintendent of public instruction, appointed a panel of statistics experts to look into the scoring of the exams.

All students in a given grade took the tests. But budget constraints led to a process in which only a sample of papers were scored to compute the results for each school. Critics charged that sampling problems caused inaccurate scores to be assigned to a number of schools.

The panel found that limited money, lost data, and time constraints undermined the accuracy of test results.

Serious shortfalls in the number of exams scored occurred in about 250, or 3 percent, of California's schools. The education department has since scored additional tests for those sites and readjusted the results.

But the committee also concluded that "few school-level reports in 1993 had adequate reliability" because of problems inherent in performance assessments.

"It is remarkable that CLAS has achieved so much by this time," wrote the committee. "Still, CLAS and similar assessments are in uncharted waters."

"The assessment community in California and throughout the nation is being pressed to deliver dependable information when the groundwork for accurate performance assessment has not been laid," the panel stressed.

In particular, the committee criticized the practice of relying on only one or two performance tasks per student and having each scored only once.

The panel, chaired by Lee J. Cronbach, a professor of education emeritus at Stanford University, recommended against reporting scores for individual students until the test can deliver consistently dependable reports on schools.

The panel also urged that the department hire one outside firm to give the exams and insure quality control. The department has already taken steps to improve the design, administration, and accuracy of the tests.

'Political Explanation'

The bill crafted by State Sen. Gary K. Hart would make additional changes. It would bar questions related to a student's or parent's personal beliefs on family life, sex, morality, or religion; give parents and the community a greater role in test development; and make it clear that parents can exclude their children from taking the exams.

It would also require the tests to include a mix of performance tasks, multiple-choice, and short-answer items to measure a broad range of academic skills. And it asks for reliable scores for individual students within five years.

Testing experts praised the changes. "I think they will over all strengthen the quality of the measurement," said Eva L. Baker, the co-director of the Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing at the University of California at Los Angeles.

But the exams may still fall victim to election-year politics. The General Assembly passed the bill on a strict 41-to-28 party-line tally, with exactly the minimum number of votes required for approval. Democrats voted yes and Republicans voted no. The Senate approved the bill 21 to 11.

Mr. Wilson, a Republican, is up for re-election in November. Voters will also pick a state superintendent. In that race, Ms. DiMarco is running against Delaine Eastin, the chairwoman of the House Education Committee, who backs CLAS.

Mr. Dawson, who is not running, said: "I cannot understand anything, other than perhaps a purely political explanation, for a failure to reauthorize CLAS."

Most of the major education interest groups in the state, as well as the California Business Roundtable, have endorsed the bill.

The bill also would reauthorize the state's vocational-certification tests, physical-fitness tests, and Golden State Examinations, which are taken by high school students.

"It would really be a shame if California decided to throw out the CLAS baby with the bath water and to go back to multiple-guess, paper-and-pencil tests that almost everyone agrees don't measure what kids know and are able to do," said Julia E. Koppich, a director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a research group based at the University of California at Berkeley.

"In some instances," she added, "we like to say that California is a bellwether state. I hope, in this instance, it's not true."

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