SAN BERNARDINO — Faced with mounting criticism, state education officials on Thursday informed local school officials that they may let parents exempt children from the CLAS student performance tests and should make samples of the exam questions available for scrutiny.
The exams, given last year and under way again in thousands of California public schools, have sparked controversy among some parents and religious groups who contend that the test questions invade student privacy and promote anti-family values. Critics said questions were kept confidential to escape scrutiny and not, as officials maintained, to guard against cheating.
"We're telling each district to make decisions for themselves," said Susie Lange, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education. "There's a bigger issue here for us and that's the exam. This was bogging everything down and we wanted the exams to continue."
Hours before the department's decision, a San Bernardino County Superior Court judge demanded to review a copy of the exams and ruled that no local students would be required to take the tests. It was the latest of several rulings by judges and school boards letting parents opt out of the exams.
The exams are the foundation of the California Learning Assessment System, which the state Legislature adopted to improve the measurement of student achievement in public schools. The exams are being given statewide this month and next to students in fourth, eighth and 10th grades.
Test results are used to compare student work in each school to tough performance standards in reading, writing, math and other subjects. Beginning this year, the tests are also designed to become part of a student's classroom record.
Content of the exams became an issue after a reading exercise in some of last year's exams--a story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker--was made public. The story, "Roselily," is about the thoughts of an unmarried mother on her wedding day. Some parents and religious groups complained that the story and some questions on the exams are inappropriate.
The Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which said it defends religious liberty, said that teachers concerned about the content have leaked test copies to critics.
State education officials maintain that the exams, which cost at least $15 million to develop and administer, would become useless if actual questions were widely published or became known to students, teachers and parents. It is common practice for the questions on standardized tests to be kept confidential, officials said.
In a letter Thursday to local school officials, acting Supt. of Public Instruction William D. Dawson said that in light of the San Bernardino court ruling, no action would be taken against school districts that let parents decide whether to have their children skip the tests.
The court action came in a suit filed by the Rutherford Institute on behalf of six students in San Bernardino-area school districts. Earlier this week, Judge Duane M. Lloyd granted a temporary restraining order letting students bow out of the tests, and Thursday he extended the order until a May 17 hearing.
Lloyd told the institute's attorney, Kimberly Laliberte, that other students could be added to the lawsuit and be immediately excused from the exams. "We'll be deluged," Laliberte said after the hearing.
Dan Haueter, chief deputy county counsel for San Bernardino County, said that legal machinations were not necessary for parents who do not want their children to take the test, even though the state last week had threatened action against an Antelope Valley school board that gave parents the option of boycotting the exams.
"It would be insane for any (school) district to take any action against a child for refusing to take it," Haueter said. Each of the six districts that were sued have assured him, Haueter said, that no student will be forced to take the test. Moreover, it would be "unconscionable" for any district to force a student to take it, he said.
The reading and writing portions of the exams require students to read passages or stories, discuss them in a group, and write answers to questions. To gauge writing and thinking skills, some students are asked their feelings about what they read and how the material relates to their lives.
Education officials say such performance-based exams provide a better measure of student abilities than multiple-choice exams, which are being phased out in several states. Nothing in the exam materials is objectionable, officials say.
Laliberte argued, however, that the exams are "inherently dangerous to the children, their families and their right to privacy."
The judge, noting that state law requires teachers to inform authorities if they believe students are victims of child abuse, said he was concerned how student responses might be interpreted. Some students might exaggerate their answers and trigger an investigation into abuse, he said.