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Students Give Failing Grade to CLAS Test : Education: Many find format invasive, confusing. Officials say exam rates skills, not personal beliefs.

May 23, 1994|BETH SHUSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Neither district nor state officials are currently keeping track of the numbers of parents who are refusing to allow their children to take the test. State education officials said they will have to evaluate whether lower numbers of students taking the tests will affect some overall school and district results.

Los Angeles school principals were told last week to compile lists of exempted students and keep files of letters from parents.

After more than a week of taking the tests, students at Millikan said they were asked subjective--and sometimes personal--questions without clear-cut answers. The reading and writing prompted the students to analyze literature in ways they've rarely done before using short answers, diagrams and essays.

Principals and teachers across the district said the tests are better methods of assessment than the old-fashioned, multiple-choice exams they are replacing. Even college-placement tests are now performance-based.

But the students clearly aren't impressed.

"I had one question asking if I had regrets about something," said Devin Johnson, a Millikan 14-year-old. "I was thinking for a long time. It was a real personal question.

"Everyone I know made up the answer," she said, drawing a round of laughter from her classmates.

"They're grading us on our opinions--if they don't agree with us, are our answers wrong?" asked Piruza Papazyan, a fellow Millikan student.

The critics, who range from conservative religious groups to individual parents, say students should not be given open-ended writing assignments without clear-cut, multiple-choice questions.

"There's controversy over whether this is a psychological test or an academic test," said Chris Trujillo, a North Hollywood parent who demanded that her fourth- and eighth-grade children be exempted from the tests. "It's all been so secretive. Teachers aren't allowed to speak about it. I just didn't want my children exposed to it."

State officials have denied that the exams--mandated by the Legislature as part of a years-long effort to improve public schools--are "psychological," and they refuse to allow parents to review them prior to the end of the year. In June, however, the state Board of Education has agreed to release at least portions of the current tests.

Some educators, like Cleveland High English teacher Nancy Johnston, said she is concerned that the reading selections--which include excerpts of Richard Wright's "Black Boy," among others--are too difficult. "Some (students) could be lost at the very first sentence," Johnston said. "Some of our 10th-graders are just incapable of reading this without assistance."

The tests, which were developed and are graded by teams of educators, are intended to coincide with new state guidelines for English and other subjects.

The state encourages students to read and analyze literature in a variety of ways.

But to some parents and students, the subjective nature of the tests is questionable.

"I feel that if they're going to grade these tests, there should be a right or wrong answer," said Janice Reilly, a West Hills parent who refused to allow her fourth-grade son to take the tests. "But without that, it would just be the opinion of the grader."

The state does have scoring guidelines, and teachers who read the tests discuss answers and decide appropriate numerical scores.

The tests are designed to determine whether students can write in a convincing and coherent way drawing from the reading selections.

But tell that to the students. "One question asked what kind of problems teen-agers have with their parents," said Nikki Addis, a Millikan 14-year-old. "This has nothing to do with English. That's personal."

Added Angel Salais, a Millikan classmate: "That's not a problem in my house. I talk to my parents all the time. I didn't know what to write . . . and I don't feel like telling anyone about my family."

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