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A Giant Leap Toward Better California Schools

Statewide testing promises to measure kids and teachers too

September 21, 1997

Gov. Pete Wilson has prevailed in his battle to require California school districts to give a standardized test yearly to students in grades two through 11. This is an advance that will allow parents, principals, superintendents and state education officials to assess precisely how well the public schools are performing.

Grades two through eight will be tested on reading, spelling, math and written expression. Grades nine through 11 will be scored in reading, math, writing, history-social science and science. The results will provide a valuable tool that California has been too long without, a district-by-district, campus-by-campus, teacher-by-teacher, pupil-by-pupil comparison that will undergird accountability in the education system.

If President Clinton had prevailed in his campaign for national testing, comparisons could have been made across state lines, but House Republicans, citing the issue of local control, killed that prospect. When President George Bush pushed a similar proposal, Democrats bottled it up. Educational excellence should not be a partisan football, and California legislators made the right decision.

In the past, each California district chose which test, if any, it would use to gauge student progress. The result was a hodgepodge of data with no basis for comparison. That practice blurred goals and set back the hope of progress. Educators expect to be able to use test results under the new system to pinpoint what works in the classroom and what doesn't.

Statewide testing may be painful. Many low-achieving campuses will need more money and better teachers to improve their scores. A 1996 study by the National Conference of Teaching found that inner-city students had less than a 50% chance of having a credentialed teacher or a teacher certified in the subject matter. Disparities in test scores will underline where the state and local districts need to put their funds.

Delaine Eastin, the state's superintendent of public instruction, will recommend the first tests to be administered and is expected to draw from highly rated existing materials. The State Board of Education will make the final selection in November. Eastin had opposed statewide testing until tough new statewide standards could be adopted. She has a point, but reform must be built upon results. Any test is better than no test.

Under the newly passed legislation, the state will use a standardized test specific to California's educational goals. The test will measure what each student, under the goals, is expected to learn in reading, writing and mathematics.

California's pending educational standards, endorsed last week by the state Academic Standards Commission, will be among the toughest in the nation. Fourth-graders will be required to read extensively outside the classroom, and 10th-graders will have to master two years of algebra, a gateway subject to higher learning. California should aim for nothing less.

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