Calif. DistrictsFighting State Testing Orders

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A battle of wills is pitting California districts against state policymakers, with the districts protesting a new required basic-skills test that they argue will be a waste of time and money for more than 1 million of the 4.25 million students to be tested statewide.

While district leaders take issue with many aspects of the state-financed testing program, a central complaint focuses on the mandate that all students, even those with little or no understanding of English, must take the new test in English. About a fourth of students statewide are not proficient in that language.

The school board in the Los Angeles district, the state's largest, plans to head into court soon to ask for relief from giving the test to the limited-English-proficient students least able to understand it.

But state education officials themselves are hanging tough, threatening to retaliate against districts that refuse to administer the test.

The dispute highlights one of the state's biggest hot-button issues--the educational needs of students learning English--and extends a long-running testing saga in a state that, until this year, had not had a statewide assessment of student learning since 1994.

In addition to balking at the requirement that LEP students take the basic-skills test and charging that politics is overriding pedagogy, some district officials point out that the national, commercially available test--the Stanford 9--is not aligned with as-yet-incomplete state standards in academic subjects. They also object to the fact that because next year's test is to be customized to jibe with the standards, its results may not be comparable with those from this year.

The possibility also looms for districts that how their students do on this test--LEP students and all--could be used under future accountability laws to reward or punish low-performing schools.

In Los Angeles, where about 47 percent of the 682,000 students have limited proficiency in English, the district is seeking court intervention to relieve it from having to give the test to the 92,000 LEP students deemed least able to comprehend it, based on the time they have been receiving instruction in English.

"To give an English-language test to a student who doesn't read English doesn't tell you anything about what they know about the subject matter on the test," said Jeff Horton, a member of the Los Angeles school board. "We feel that just as the courts have held that students have a right to instruction in a language they can understand, we hope the same will extend to the test," he said.

Most Signed Up

San Francisco officials are still undecided about giving the test, said Gail Kaufman, a district spokeswoman. About one-third, or 20,700, of San Francisco's 62,000 students have limited proficiency in English.

Unlike in the past, each district, rather than the state, must sign a contract with the test publisher. The state is paying for the tests, which may cost between $28 million and $36 million in total.

Because the requirement calls for districts to give the test to all students regardless of their knowledge of English, "it makes no sense educationally," Ms. Kaufman said. She and officials in other districts said they fear humiliation for LEP students forced to take a test they can't read.

The vast majority of California districts have agreed to take the tests. As of last week, just 28 of about 1,100 local and county districts had yet to make that commitment; four of those said they were in the process of doing so.

The state-financed testing program was adopted last year, and last fall, the state board selected the Stanford Achievement Test-9, published by Harcourt Brace & Co., which will provide results for individual students comparable with a national norm. The law calls for every student in grades 2-11 to take the test by May 15, beginning this year.

Districts must also give limited-English-proficient students who have been enrolled less than one year a basic-skills test in their native language, if one is available. Several are available in Spanish.

Playing Hardball

The state school board is not pleased with the protests. The board has already voted to make disbursement of federal technology-grant money contingent on districts' participation in the testing program, known as the Student Testing and Reporting Program, or STAR. The board plans at its meeting next week to play hardball in other ways to bring districts into compliance.

"I fully expect between now and the March board meeting to pull out every single waiver [from state regulations granted to districts] and put it on the March agenda to have it reconsidered and most likely rescinded" for districts that have not yet signed up, said Bill Lucia, the executive director of the board.

A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson echoed the board's hard line. "People can't choose which laws they like to obey," Lisa Kalustian said. "The issue here is accountability," she said. "We need to know how well our kids are doing. ... We need to be sure the bilingual programs we have are in fact working."

Los Angeles' Mr. Horton said the threat to pull waivers could work. "We're not immune to that kind of pressure," he said. "If they're willing to harm students in other ways in order to enforce this test, then we may have to bend." Pending as-yet-unscheduled court action, Los Angeles has signed up to give the test.

Despite reservations about the fairness of the test, officials in the K-8 Bakersfield district have accepted the mandate. About one in four students there have limited English proficiency, or about 7,000 of the district's 28,000 students.

"It's not worth the gamble," said Dale Russell, the director of research and evaluation services. "If they pull our federal funding, we're really in trouble," he said.

Political Motives?

The resolution the Los Angeles board adopted seeks to get a court order that says the district does not have to give the test to the students who "are unable to substantially comprehend the content of tests administered in English."

"It became clear to us that it was not just a bad idea, but so profoundly a violation of the educational program and of the efforts to build some kind of bond between teachers and parents and students that we couldn't go forward with it without trying everything we could to change it," Mr. Horton said.

The way the results are to be reported--and posted on the Internet by June 30--also disturbs district officials. They are not pleased that the scores of all students are to be aggregated into a total district score and that the performance of LEP students is to be the only score teased out from the overall group, they said.

"If your percent [of LEP students] is much greater than that of the state, then when the scores are produced on a statewide basis in an aggregated form, your district and school scores will be greatly distorted and lowered," said Robert Ryan, San Diego's testing director.

About 20 percent of San Diego's students have limited English skills, or about 33,000 out of 165,000 in the district.

The group of students that districts are worried about most in San Diego and elsewhere are those who have been enrolled in an American school for less than 30 months of instructional time. In the past, those students have been exempted from participating in state tests.

The manner in which the scores are to be reported--lumping special education students and those least fluent in English into a district's score--smacks to some school board and educators of furthering a political agenda that is opposed to bilingual education and in favor of charter schools, Mr. Ryan said. Because the overall scores will be low, making it look as though the schools have done a poor job, "the feeling is that particular strategy would bolster the various political agendas for the governor," he said.

But Ms. Kalustian dismissed such charges as "ridiculous."

"The accountability is the key," she said.

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