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CLAS Tests: Here's What's Really in Them

June 16, 1994|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Open the top-secret 1994 California Learning Assessment System test and here's some of what you'll find:

"Do you think that people today are as strong as their parents and grandparents were?" CLAS asks fourth-graders. "Why do you think some teen-agers and their parents have problems communicating?" the test queries eighth-graders.

And for 10th-graders: "Why do you think people can seem to be shy in one setting and outgoing in another? . . . Why is it that some people appear unable to talk at all?"

These are just three of hundreds of questions, tasks and instructions contained in the language arts portion of the state's new student performance test, widely praised by educators but also under attack as too personal, too political and too vague to gauge student achievement.

Though the tests have not yet been released to the public, copies obtained by The Times show much of what critics suspected: provocative readings about race, poverty and family relationships coupled with repeated requests for children's opinions and reflections on personal experiences.

But the exams also show that rumors about CLAS have often exaggerated and distorted its content, focusing on the most sensitive passages and ignoring the context in which issues are discussed.

"We're starting to hear things that parents say their kids say are on the test where that just isn't the case," state Department of Education spokeswoman Jan Agee said recently.

Radically different in style from older standardized tests, the new assessment system seeks to gauge what students know through a variety of methods: from doodling exercises and group discussions to essays that require students to connect literary themes to their lives.

On various versions of the tests, students are prompted to display their writing skills by discussing a time when they did or said something they now regret, dreaming up a list of TV programs, or describing someone who does not go along with the crowd.

Instead of computer-scanned answer sheets, CLAS is graded by specially trained schoolteachers.

More than 1 million children in 7,500 schools took CLAS this spring, at a cost of $26 million, amid a chorus of criticism from conservative Christian groups, some educators and hundreds of parents. Opponents contend that CLAS is too subjective to serve as a valid testing tool and that the language-arts segments violate state law by questioning children about morality without parental permission.

State education officials and supporters in industry and academia insist that the tests are necessary to revive public education in California and will improve schools. The pointed questions gauge analytical thinking and prompt students to write passionately, officials say.

Courts have denied that CLAS violates state law and have ordered school districts to administer the exams, but the Department of Education responded to public pressure last month by allowing parents to withdraw their children from the exams. At least one district, Fullerton Elementary, has refused to give the exams this year despite threats of legal action by the state.

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The Department of Education has refused parent requests to view the tests, arguing that statewide tests are always confidential to protect the integrity of the exam.

Now that CLAS testing is complete, state officials plan to release portions of CLAS next month to public libraries. But so far actual test questions have not been revealed.

Each student taking the test receives a sealed envelope containing a Student Information Form, a set of color-coded exam booklets sporting pictures of happy-faced students and stickers with bar-code labels to ensure secrecy.

The information forms pose questions on ethnic background, parent occupation, English-language proficiency and achievement levels, as well as inquiries about how many hours children spend each day doing homework and watching television.

Fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders take tests in language arts and math, while fifth-graders take exams in science and history/social science.

The language arts component, by far the most controversial, contains separate booklets for reading, group work and writing.

CLAS features stories about California youth by prominent authors--including Maxine Hong Kingston and Dick Gregory--plus classics like an Aesop's fable, a poem by John Updike and a piece from Richard Wright's "Black Boy."

The readings deal with difficult themes: discrimination, fear, dreams, homelessness, hunger, dysfunctional families, religion, crime and death.

After reading his or her assigned selection, each student is asked for an initial response to the story, and given space for "ideas, questions or opinions." Later, there is space for them to "write anything else . . . what it means to you, what it reminds you of, how it relates to your own life."

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