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Wilson Proposal for Basic-Skills Test in Calif. Draws Fire

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A recent proposal from Gov. Pete Wilson could supply California with the statewide test of student achievement it has been missing since 1990. But the plan has drawn objections from educators and lawmakers and promises to be a big factor in this month's crucial budget negotiations with legislators.

The new test, intended to be in place this coming school year, could mean districts would be participating in their fourth state assessment program in seven years.

The plan would replace the current testing program--initiated just last year--in which districts voluntarily administer standardized tests of basic skills that they select from a state-approved list. Districts that comply with state guidelines receive an incentive of $5 per student.

Aides to the governor argue that although the current testing scheme provides schools and parents with individual student scores--a major goal of Mr. Wilson's since his first campaign for governor in 1990--the scores are not comparable across the state because districts use different tests. In addition, because the program is voluntary, only about 55 percent of students are being tested in it, the aides said.

The governor is proposing that the state buy a commercially available test of basic skills that districts would be required to give to students in grades 2 through 11. The annual cost would be about $83 million--or about $60 million more per year than the voluntary testing program.

Districts would be reimbursed $10 per student for grades 2-8 and $40 per high school student, said Dan Edwards, a spokesman for the governor's office of child development and education. The test would yield individual student scores and be comparable among districts--unlike the approximately 65 tests now being used.

Such a plan is possible financially because higher-than-expected state tax revenues this year have generated a windfall of about $2.4 billion. Under state law, most of that money must go to education.

Mr. Wilson wants to use the test to assess the effectiveness of the state's massive class-size-reduction initiative for grades K-3 and a new emphasis on phonics-based reading pedagogy. Even without having measured students' performance before the advent of those measures, Mr. Edwards said, the sooner the state can start testing children, the better officials will understand the long-term effects of such changes.

Customized Test

The new statewide standardized test is not intended to alter the second part of the two-tiered testing system signed into law by Mr. Wilson, a Republican, in October 1995. The second assessment, to be created after a state commission completes its standards-setting mission later this year, would not provide individual scores. Instead, it would test a sampling of students in several grades in order to give policymakers a picture of how schools and districts are doing. ("Calif. Districts Hit Barriers on Road to Tests," May 15, 1996.)

The test of individual performance could be modified after standards are in place, aides to Mr. Wilson said. "The governor has made it clear [the testing proposal] does not dilute the importance of what the standards commission is doing," Mr. Edwards said.

The two-tiered system was conceived after Mr. Wilson vetoed the continuation of the controversial California Learning Assessment System, or CLAS, in 1994.

But the new testing proposal highlights the conflicting demands of those who want to take the necessary time to set standards and write customized assessments based on them and those who want a way to take the temperature of K-12 progress immediately.

Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, urged the state school board earlier this month to consider how a "quick fix could irreparably harm the steady progress we have been making toward California's own standards, assessment, and accountability system."

But the board, appointed by Mr. Wilson, unanimously endorsed his proposal anyway.

Ms. Eastin, a Democrat, supports a mandatory statewide test yielding individual scores, but she wants one that will be aligned with the standards.

The governor and Ms. Eastin also differ on how soon tests aligned with standards could be ready. Ms. Eastin says December 1998. Mr. Edwards argues it would be at least the spring of 1999, while an off-the-shelf test could be administered next spring.

Budget Breaker?

Meanwhile, the Democrat-controlled legislature did not welcome the governor's proposal when it arrived last month. Neither chamber included it in its budget. But Mr. Wilson has vowed to fight. "This is one of the budget breakers for education," said Bill Lucia, the executive director of the state school board.

And at least one legislator hinted last week that a compromise could be possible. "I'm not opposed to negotiating something with the governor," said Rep. Kerry Mazzoni, the Democratic chairwoman of the Assembly education committee.

She said she would not want to prevent districts from continuing their local testing and establishing trend data. But "we can't get a [statewide] assessment fast enough."

The Education Coalition, a group of nine organizations representing teachers, administrators, school boards, and others, opposes the governor's plan. Not only should the standards come first, said Peter Birdsall, the coalition's coordinator, but the price is high, and the cancellation of the local program "destroys year-to-year comparisons."

Echoing the concerns of many, Mr. Birdsall said: "California has really been handicapped by all the restarts on our assessment system."

In the 22,000-student Pasadena district near Los Angeles, Superintendent Vera J. Vignes said that if the governor's proposal becomes law, her district, which began participating this year in the voluntary testing program, could have "three different tests in three different years."

Ms. Vignes said she likes the idea of a test offering comparisons across the state, but said the timing was not right for an off-the-shelf assessment with the creation of standards under way. "It seems we've got the cart before the horse right now."

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