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Revived Calif. Assessment Bill Waits As Gov. Weighs His Options

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A California bill that creates a new statewide system for assessing student learning was facing an uncertain fate late last week as Gov. Pete Wilson weighed signing or vetoing the measure.

The bill, which would fill a void left when Mr. Wilson killed a controversial state testing program last year, already has survived one legislative death in recent weeks.

Last week, signs pointed to a gubernatorial signature, but observers said that conservative groups dissatisfied with the plan were pushing hard for a veto.

Conservatives have assailed spending money on an assessment program when state standards for what students should know and be able to do are not yet in place. They also do not want any statewide test to be mandatory and have opposed a proposal that some items be scored based on students performing hands-on tasks.

Conservative opposition appeared to sink the bill early last month, but its sponsor, Sen. Leroy F. Greene, found a new vehicle for it, and the bill was passed on the last day of the legislative session. Mr. Greene, a Democrat, is the chairman of the Senate education committee. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1995.)

Business and education groups, including the California School Boards Association, the state PTA, and the teachers' unions, are backing the bill.

An aide to Gov. Wilson said negotiations on the final content of the bill were still under way last week.

Sal Villasenor, a senior legislative advocate with the California School Boards Association, said he was willing to agree to some changes in the plan.

As laid out in AB 265, the new testing system would replace the California Learning Assessment System, known as CLAS. Mr. Wilson had complained that CLAS did not yield reliable scores for individual students and put too much emphasis on testing higher-order thinking skills at the expense of basic skills. He vetoed a revamping of that system last year.

Last week, Dan Edwards, the governor's deputy assistant secretary for child development and education, said some people question whether there are still elements of CLAS in its proposed replacement.

Designed To Please

Supporters say the new testing system was designed to avoid many of the criticisms leveled at CLAS. They said it incorporates both what the governor sought--individual scores and a test of basic skills--and what Mr. Greene sought, which was statewide data and testing of higher-order skills, said Rick Simpson, Mr. Greene's chief education aide. "This is a compromise," he said.

In his State of the State address in January, Mr. Wilson said he wanted a new student-testing program. And some say presidential politics are playing a role in how Mr. Wilson is now handling the bill because he is seeking the Republican nomination for the 1996 election.

"If this was not an election year, it would be a slam-dunk," Mr. Villasenor, the school boards' lobbyist said. "He would've signed it the same day it got to his desk."

Mr. Wilson has until Oct. 15 to veto the bill. If he signs it or declines to take any action, the bill will take effect in January.

The new testing system would be two-tiered, beginning with voluntary testing by districts using an off-the-shelf, basic-skills test for students in grades 2 to 10 as early as this school year. The districts would choose the tests, subject to state approval. And the tests used would have to produce comparable results across districts. Details of how the state would handle such technical tasks are not yet worked out.

The bill includes $4.5 million for an incentive program that would provide $5 per student to districts that participate in the voluntary testing.

An additional $6.5 million would go toward development of the second tier--a mandatory statewide test of applied academic skills. The test would be given in several academic subjects to students in grades 4, 5, 8, and 10. The test would be developed by an outside contractor and would be phased in over several years. Students might be able to take the assessment as early as spring 1997.

Next summer, $15 million more for the testing program likely would be made available, for a total of $26 million. Supporters of the new test acknowledge that more money would be needed later. CLAS had an annual price tag of about $50 million.

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