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Fate of Calif. Testing Unclear After Wilson's Veto

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The future of student testing in California is up for grabs after Gov. Pete Wilson's veto last week of a bill that would have reauthorized the state's existing assessment system.

Governor Wilson refused to sign the measure because it would not allow students to obtain individual test scores until at least 1999. He also charged that the exam did not do a good enough job of assessing students' basic skills. The veto had been widely anticipated. (See Education Week, Sept. 7, 1994.)

The Governor's action will force the state education department to scratch plans for administering the controversial statewide test next spring. William D. Dawson, the acting state superintendent of public instruction, said it is "completely unrealistic" to think a new test could be on line by then, even if lawmakers pass a revised bill when they reconvene in January.

"Governor Wilson has killed statewide educational accountability in California," he said.

California first administered the exams--known as the California Learning Assessment System, or CLAS--in 1993. They combined traditional multiple-choice and short-answer questions with more innovative "performance tasks" that asked students to solve problems, write essays, and engage in laboratory experiments.

But the pioneering exams have been beset by problems. Some parents charged that the questions pried into their children's private lives and beliefs. Others questioned the accuracy and reliability of the test results.

'Politics Over Policy'

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 lawmakers enacted changes to address his concerns. Last week, he said the new measure "falls short of meeting these requirements."

The vetoed bill would have made some improvements and extended the testing program for five years.

Educators last week condemned the veto as a step backward for California's students.

"Designing and implementing an effective assessment system has been at the core of the reform movement," said Del Weber, the president of the California Teachers Association.

Although the education department made errors in administering the exams, he added, the "system itself was sound" and would have improved over time.

Others accused the Republican Governor of bowing to religious conservatives, who objected to some of the test's tone and content.

"It is a victory of politics over policy," State Rep. Delaine Eastin, a Democrat who is running for state superintendent in next month's elections, said in a statement. "After round one of the fight for higher learning standards, the score is the radical right one and the children of California nothing."

Ms. Eastin is competing for the superintendency against Maureen DiMarco, the Governor's secretary for child development and education. Their standoff on CLAS is one of the top issues in the campaign.

"In no way are either the Governor or I advocating the elimination of performance-based assessments," Ms. DiMarco said last week in a press conference at which the veto was announced. "I am merely suggesting that the role of these items should be consistent with their strengths and weaknesses--nothing more and nothing less."

'Highest Priority'

Mr. Wilson called on legislators to give the "highest priority" to enacting a new statewide testing program. He said it should produce valid, reliable results for individuals; describe student achievement relative to uniform, objective, world-class performance standards; and contain an appropriate mix of questions to assess basic and sophisticated skills.

He has proposed that all students in grades 2 through 12 receive individual results on commercially available, multiple-choice tests, administered by their school districts.

The state also would continue to administer tests in grades 4, 5, 8, and 10 that incorporated some performance-based tasks. Students could request individual results but they would not become part of students' permanent records.

An expert panel, appointed by Mr. Dawson to review the scoring methodology and reliability of CLAS, concluded last month that the performance assessments were not yet reliable enough to yield individual scores.

But Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, said that the available multiple-choice tests are not aligned with the state's curriculum frameworks and would introduce a "major element of incoherence" into California's school-reform agenda.

"I don't think anybody knows what the next move will be," he added. "There's been no real planning for another system to be put in place."

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