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Calif. Districts Hit Barriers on Road to Tests

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In a state with thousands of miles of freeways, it's no surprise that California education officials use a transportation analogy to describe efforts to involve school districts in the first year of a new testing program. They call it the "ramp up" year.

More than five months after a new assessment law took effect, events in California have highlighted the massive difficulties a state faces when it starts a testing program in the middle of a school year.

Recent interviews with educators from around the state suggest that if its nearly 1,000 districts are the cars on the testing-program ramp, then some have gotten up to speed while others have either chugged up with difficulty, stalled out along the way, or never made the drive at all.

And questions remain about how, in a system where each district can choose its own tests, comparisons of student performance will be made across district lines.

This spring, the first component of the two-part assessment system got under way.

On a voluntary basis, school districts are to give off-the-shelf tests of basic skills to measure what students in grades 2 through 10 know in reading, spelling, written expression, and mathematics. If the districts do so, following state guidelines, they will receive an incentive payment of $5 per student.

But some districts, such as the state's largest, Los Angeles Unified, concluded early on that there was no way they would be able to participate--at least not this year. Other districts planned to take part but had to wait until March before they knew which tests would meet the state school board's approval.

With the prescribed testing window set for mid-March to mid-May, that presented difficulties.

"The time line was just too short for people to be able to do everything that needed to be done," said Lynn Winters, the assistant superintendent for research, planning, and evaluation in the 78,000-student Long Beach district. Long Beach, which operates on a year-round schedule and is not taking part in the incentive program, had already started its testing a week before the state board issued the list of approved tests, Ms. Winters said.

Some of the state program's requirements--whether spelling out for districts whom to test or when to test them--threw up other roadblocks. So many obstacles appeared that the state board received about 100 requests for waivers to free districts from some of the requirements of participation. Three or four of those requests came from counties on behalf of all their districts.

Indeed, many districts were eagerly awaiting last week the state board's decisions on whether their waivers would be granted and whether the list of approved tests might be expanded.

State officials could not say exactly how many school districts are planning to take part because they do not have to declare their intent until early next week.

Task of Comparison

The assessment system is the state's first since Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed continuation of the controversial California Learning Assessment System in 1994. He objected to its lack of reliable scores for individual students and what he considered an inadequate emphasis on basic skills. (See Education Week, Oct. 5, 1994.)

In its place, Mr. Wilson signed last October the new law, Assembly Bill 265, which sets up a two-pronged program for testing the academic skills of elementary and secondary students.

In addition to the local assessment of basic skills, the second tier of the system will be a new, mandatory statewide assessment. It will test both basic skills and applied academic skills in grades 4, 5, 8, and 10 and could show up on students' desks as early as spring 1999.

The new system is intended to provide parents with information on individual children's achievement, and to give state leaders and others data on the relative performance of schools and districts. But with many of the state's school districts giving students different tests, questions arise about how student-achievement levels will be compared across districts.

Comparability was one of the original criteria the state board was to consider in deciding which tests made the approved list. But in making those decisions this year, that requirement, and several others, were dropped.

Instead, the board looked only at a test's validity and reliability--a move some district officials thought was an unfair one that came too late.

A state education department official said last week that cross-district comparisons represent a "monumental task" and are not possible this year. It may take three years to come up with a way to provide some comparisons, said Gerry Shelton, a research and evaluation consultant with the department.

Hopes for Approval

Perhaps the most daunting requirement for participation in the incentive program is the demand that districts test all students--literally--in grades 2 through 10.

That means students with severe disabilities as well as those with the most limited proficiency in English. The CLAS test also called for testing all students, but such a strict interpretation is both new and intentional, state officials said.

Tests for students who speak Spanish are on the state-approved list, but not tests for those whose first language is not Spanish, district officials pointed out.

"I think we were all surprised when the definition of 'all students' was finally determined," said Alma Williams, the director of research and evaluation in the 52,000-student Oakland district. "All students, literally, cannot take certain kinds of tests."

Testing every child also means that districts must account to the state for any students absent during testing. That level of record-keeping is something district officials said they would not necessarily do otherwise.

Another big obstacle for districts was the issue of which tests met the state's approval.

Some districts found that the tests they gave to students to comply with, for example, the federal Title I program--which channels money to schools with many disadvantaged youngsters--did not make the list.

Some local officials said test publishers and state education officials had led them to believe that the tests they were already using would make the cut. They got a rude shock.

The state board approved about two-thirds--or 400--of the 600 versions of tests it received. Test submissions came from 16 test publishers and included about 30 to 50 different tests for each grade level.

About 35 test versions were expected to be recommended for addition to the list late last week, officials said.


In both the Oakland Unified and Bakersfield City Elementary districts, officials had counted on seeing the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills on the list. It was, but only the complete-battery version, not the shorter survey version both districts used.

"We were disappointed, because we felt what we were doing was going to comply with the law," said Dale Russell, the director of research and evaluation services in the K-8 Bakersfield City Elementary School District. "They may or may not accept our waiver requests," he added. "We really don't know what's going to happen."

The Alameda County office of education, which includes Oakland, has asked the state board for waivers on behalf of all its districts. The county seeks permission to use the CTBS survey test and to exempt the testing of some disabled and limited-English-proficient students, said Ms. Williams of the Oakland district.

District officials offered mixed appraisals of how much the program's incentive money influenced their participation. It swayed school board members in 130,000-student San Diego Unified, the state's second-largest district.

"They saw [the legislation] as an opportunity for resources that the district really needed to look at," said Ruben Carriedo, the district's assistant superintendent of planning, assessment, and accountability. Indeed, because the district is using a test it has used before, he expects to have leftover incentive money that will go to other assessment activities.

But officials in the Sacramento district, who had considered joining the incentive program, changed their minds after their test of written expression did not appear on the state's approved list.

The cost of purchasing another, approved test for that subject would add up to more than they could possibly get from the incentive payments, said Nancy Law, the administrator of the accountability office for the 50,000-student district. "We'd come out in the hole."

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