Model Exam in Calif. Is Target Of New Attacks

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An innovative assessment slated to be given to California students this spring has come under heavy assault from some parents and conservative groups.

Intensifying battles last week could determine the fate of the California Learning Assessment System, which backers say is a model measure of critical-thinking, problem-solving, and writing abilities. Critics, on the other hand, portray the exam as an invasion of privacy that fails to test for essential academic skills.

At least one district has refused to administer the test, while others have postponed it. Hundreds of people have turned out for school board meetings to protest or support the examination, and lawsuits have been filed or threatened against districts for giving or failing to give the test.

Courts have set temporary restrictions on the test, and legislation is pending that would penalize people for leaking exam questions and prohibit the state from granting waivers to districts.

Observers said the issues involved in the debate go well beyond questions of testing policy.

"This is a war over what an education ought to be,'' said Ramsay Selden, the director of the state education-assessment center of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The attacks against the test come in the wake of charges that state officials engaged in censorship because they removed excerpts of works by the writers Alice Walker and Annie Dillard. The works were later returned to the pool of literature for possible future use. (See Education Week, March 9, 1994.)

State officials and educators say the assessment is part of a national movement to hold schools accountable for what and how they teach. The exam replaces the traditional multiple-choice test with open-ended questions.

CLAS tests in mathematics, reading, and writing are scheduled to be administered this spring to all 4th-, 8th-, and 10th-grade students.

Additionally, a pilot history and social-studies exam is set to be given in 5th grade.

To measure reading comprehension and writing ability, the test provides students with a literary excerpt and asks them to respond to what they have read.

In math, students are asked not only for the correct answer to a problem, but also for how they arrived at the solution.

Privacy, Secrecy Concerns

Until last week, resistance to the test was isolated to fewer than 30 districts in southern California, according to Susie Lange, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

The test has supporters, including the California Congress of Parents, Teachers, and Students. But the challengers have been far more vocal.

Some critics charge that their parental rights have been impinged upon and their privacy invaded, while others maintain that the dispute is the result of the education department usurping local authority. Still others simply do not like the test format.

The latest round of opposition apparently was triggered by the state's mandate that the tests be kept under wraps to maintain their integrity, and by a widespread perception that parents could not have their children opt out of the testing.

Although the contents of standardized tests are routinely guarded, some critics viewed the secrecy as a way to mask inappropriate exam questions.

Despite the precautions, some opponents acknowledge that school personnel smuggled tests to them.

Even so, supporters maintain that a lot of misinformation about the test is being spread.

For instance, one widely circulated question concerns a barber who is contemplating slitting a customer's throat. But an educator who has seen the test says there is no such question.

Refusal a 'Strong Statement'

The first school board to refuse to administer the exam was that of the Antelope Valley Union High School District in Los Angeles County, which decided to do so on a 3-to-2 vote last month.

In response, the education department last week ordered the district to comply and threatened to sue if it did not.

But members of the board majority vowed to stick by their position.

"I don't find anything right about this test,'' Sue Stokka, a board member, said.

The education department "mandated the test be given regardless of how parents felt about it,'' she said. "If we did as many districts had done--simply offer parental consent--we would have still broken the law, but it would not have made the strong statement of refusing to administer the test.''

Ms. Stokka said she objects to the assessment because it does not test such basic skills as grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Moreover, she said, the test asks students for their feelings on sensitive issues that intrude on family privacy--a violation of state law.

But another Antelope Valley board member defended the test.

"There was nothing that I could see in the test to cause anyone any concern,'' Wilda Andrejcik said.

"The old way we were testing [assessed] the basics of English,'' she added. "We need to train our students to think critically. If we use just the multiple-choice test, we're not challenging them.''

Caught in the Middle

Districts have found themselves in the middle of the rift.

The Beaumont district in Riverside County, for example, was threatened by the United States Justice Foundation with legal action if school officials went ahead with the test. Yet, Superintendent John Wood said, the district feared the state would take legal action if it did not administer the test.

As a result of a suit filed by another conservative group, the Rutherford Institute, a superior-court judge in San Bernardino County last week issued a temporary restraining order barring districts in that county from giving the test, while a judge in Sacramento ruled that the parents who brought suit could withhold their children from the exam.

Officials of the Santee district in San Diego County postponed testing until they reviewed the test.

Board members felt "they were operating blindly,'' Superintendent James L. Waters said.

Once the board reviewed the exam in closed session, however, members voted to proceed, while giving parents the option of removing their children.

"They could find no reason not to administer it,'' Mr. Waters said.

Vol. 13, Issue 32

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