Calif. Bill Aims To Reconstruct Testing System

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Californians have begun the push to construct a new statewide testing system to replace the controversial program that was disbanded last September.

Last week, the state Senate's education committee held hearings on a bill introduced by its chairman, Sen. Leroy F. Greene, the proposed "California school testing act."

The bill is expected to serve as the vehicle for rebuilding the defunct system from scratch. Whether policymakers can do that to the satisfaction of all parties is being closely watched nationwide.

"California has taken the lead in a lot of elements of standards-based reform," said Paul D. Goren, the director of education-policy studies for the National Governors' Association. "At the heart of all of that is an accountability system. That's what challenges many, if not all, states. So it's important to learn from the experiences that California went through on its assessment program and to watch as [policymakers] redefine it."

SB 430 would require the state superintendent of public instruction to design and implement a statewide pupil-assessment system that would be called the "California Assessment of Educational Progress."

The system would have to generate valid scores for individual students reflecting their acquisition of basic skills. "Where feasible," the bill states, the tests would also measure students' ability to apply knowledge in more complex ways and to solve problems. The system would include, but not be limited to, multiple-choice and short-answer questions and performance-based tasks.

California has been without a statewide testing system since the fall, when Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed a bill to revamp the California Learning Assessment System, known as CLAS. The controversial exam, which had been in place since 1993, combined traditional multiple-choice and short-answer questions with more innovative performance tasks. (See Education Week, related story .)

Mr. Wilson complained that the test did not yield reliable scores for individual students and did not strike an adequate balance between basic and higher-order skills. Questions about the accuracy of test results, and parental charges that some items pried into children's private lives, also contributed to the test's demise.

State, Local Mix

Under Senator Greene's bill, the state board of education would be responsible for approving a system that includes an undetermined mix of local and state testing. An aide to Mr. Greene said that the system could include local tests that were approved by the state board as consistent with state curriculum frameworks or commercially published tests that met similar state criteria.

"We will probably end up being more brokers in this issue than ideologues," he said.

Column Wrap

The state education department has already begun pulling together advisory groups to draw up criteria for approving commercially available tests. Fred Tempes, the associate superintendent in charge of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, said most people seem to view such tests as providing "at least a short-term solution to the issue of individual scores, which loomed large in the CLAS debacle last fall."

The department hopes to submit the criteria to the state board this summer. The tests would be reviewed beginning in September, so that some could be available for students to take by next spring.

Mr. Tempes said there was also an "emerging consensus" to recreate a state-level assessment that would be used for accountability purposes and that would include some performance tasks, in addition to more traditional measures. Such a test, he said, would probably not yield individual scores.

But a big question is what financial incentive, if any, districts should be given to administer commercially available tests or to go beyond that and create a more multifaceted testing system.

A spokeswoman, Cindy Katz, said that the administration was working with the education department on the new testing system and that Mr. Wilson would not comment on the Senate bill. But Ms. Katz said any testing system would have to yield individual scores and statistically valid results, incorporate high standards, and measure basic skills as well as applied knowledge.

In addition, Mr. Greene noted, any new test "is simply going to have to do a better job [than CLAS] of letting people know what it is all about before it's put in place."

Privacy, Validity Concerns

"The CLAS test was actually a good test," he argued. "It got a bum rap. We're going to have to see to it that there's a lot of public involvement in putting this all together."

Mr. Greene's bill would:

Require statewide performance standards in all major subjects that would identify the achievement expected in various grades and would be the basis for reporting results.

The mandate is consistent with the federal Goals 2000: Educate America Act and testing requirements under the federal Title I program for disadvantaged students.

Require the department to recommend to the board privately published tests that adhere to the state's curriculum frameworks.
Insure that all assessment procedures, items, instruments, and scoring systems were independently reviewed to see that they met high standards of statistical reliability and did not use practices that were racially, culturally, or gender biased.
Prohibit the use of any questions about a student's personal beliefs or practices in the areas of sex, family life, morality, or religion without the written consent of parents or guardians.

The bill will go next to the Senate appropriations committee, before going to the floor for a vote.

Vol. 14, Issue 31

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