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Wilson Urges Statewide Test Plan for Schools

May 14, 1997|LUCILLE RENWICK and RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Saying that California needs to measure the effectiveness of its billion-dollar investment in smaller classes, Gov. Pete Wilson on Tuesday proposed immediate implementation of a statewide testing system to compare the performance of students--and schools.

Under Wilson's $83-million proposal, the State Board of Education would buy already developed standardized tests and pay schools to give them to students from grades two to 11 next spring. Now, school districts throughout California are giving 65 different tests, the results of which cannot be compared accurately with one another.

"We need new standards to help bring the kind of accountability that our schools have long been lacking," Wilson said during an appearance at Camellia Avenue Elementary School in North Hollywood. "We need to be able to measure each student's individual skill levels."

Wilson has long pushed for such tests. He helped kill the state's CLAS test in 1994 partly because it gave scores only for schools and not for individual students.

California is one of the few states that does not administer statewide tests. Some states, such as Kentucky and Michigan, have developed their own testing systems. But others, such as Iowa, Ohio and Florida, contract with private firms to develop the tests.

In 1995, Wilson signed a bill to create statewide tests that would be designed to measure students against a set of academic standards. But the process of creating those examinations is expected to take several more years while a state commission develops standards in math and reading--and an outside firm writes tests based on them.

In the interim, local districts are receiving a $5-per-student subsidy for giving basic skills tests, much as they always have. Although such tests produce scores for individual students, they do not allow comparisons among schools or districts.

State Board of Education member Janet Nicholas of Sonoma said Wilson's proposal was "fabulous" because it would mean that "a parent in Los Angeles and a parent in Sonoma can both equally know how their fourth-grader is doing."

She said the proposal would not derail the work of creating standards that detail what students ought to know at each grade. "That process will continue, but we just can't afford to have today's children waiting on standards and then waiting for tests to be developed to begin having accountability," she said.

Wilson said he would ask the Legislature to spend the $83 million to give school districts $10 for each student tested in grades two through eight and $40 for each one tested in grades nine through 11.

Although he must persuade the Legislature to go along, one analyst predicted that the proposal has a good chance of passage because many state leaders have been frustrated by the lack of information about how well the state's schools are performing. Moreover, the test could bolster several pending pieces of legislation.

State Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) has a bill that would provide students who are falling behind at low-performing schools with money to take buses to schools outside their neighborhoods. At the same time, Assembly Republican Leader Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) is proposing that students from the lowest-performing schools be given vouchers that would allow them to attend private or other public schools.

Both bills have been stymied by the lack of any way of measuring which students or schools would qualify.

Though initial reaction to Wilson's plan was generally positive, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Assn. questioned why the governor was in such a rush to test students, and not content to wait a few years for the state's customized testing system.

"You need some connection between the curriculum and a test," said CTA spokeswoman Tommye Hutto. "If you pull something off a shelf, you have no guarantee this is happening."

The second in command at the state Department of Education also expressed concern "whether the test can be aligned to the standards and customized to California."

But Chief Deputy Supt. Ruth McKenna said her boss, state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, "has been saying for a while that we need to push standards, assessment and accountability to the next level, which is a mandated test with individual results . . . and on the surface, this is what this gets us."

Wilson's plan would require major changes in local testing programs. The Los Angeles Unified School District just this year began using the Stanford Assessment Test and has been training teachers in how to employ the results in their classrooms. If the state were to adopt another test, Los Angeles would have to change again.

Wilson's testing proposal is the latest in a series of initiatives to improve California's dismal performance in education, timed to the release of his revised budget today. On Tuesday, he formally unveiled his plan to give a $230-million boost to the state's effort to reduce the size of classes in kindergarten and grades one through three to no more than 20 pupils.

Overall, Wilson is asking for $1.5 billion for that program, an amount he says should make it possible for 1.9 million students to be in the smaller classes.

Also on Tuesday, Wilson pledged to add $50 million to the state's Digital High School program, designed to provide Internet-linked computers in high schools throughout the state. That money would boost the program's funding to $100 million, enough to offer grants to up to 200 high schools for technology projects.

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