First it was on, then off, then on again. When legislators left Sacramento last weekend, they had given Gov. Pete Wilson the prize that he had insisted on all summer: a standardized test that would make it possible to compare the performance of school districts, schools and even individual pupils across the state.
Who: All public school students in grades 2 through 11 will be tested.
What: An "off-the-shelf" test--immediately available from a testing company--for each grade. From grades 2 through 6 it will cover math, reading, written expression and spelling. Grades 7 through 11 will cover those subjects plus history, social studies and science. The test will be "norm-referenced," meaning that student performance will be measured against a national average.
When: The State Board of Education will choose a set of tests--from recommendations by Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin--no later than January. Students will take them by the end of May and the results will be available--for each pupil, school and county--by the end of June.
Why: Since the 1960s, California has lacked a way to measure the performance of its schools against those nationally. For the past three years, the state has not even had its own testing system.
Cost: $35 million a year. Districts will be reimbursed $8 per test.
Local impact: Virtually all of the state's districts gave standardized tests this year--but 56 types, making comparisons impossible. When the state picks one exam, all districts will have to fall in line. Those choosing to stick with their current tests will also have to give the one selected by the state.
Language: Wilson wanted pupils tested only in English. Democratic legislators, especially Latinos, wanted students tested in their first language--usually Spanish--for as long as they receive instruction in that language. A compromise requires students to be tested both in English and in their primary language during the first 12 months that they attend California schools. After that, districts must use English exams, but have the option of testing in both.
Other tests: The new test is not the only one students can expect. By January, the state will adopt standards for what students should know in math, reading, writing, history and science. Then a second set of tests--created just for California--will be given in grades 4, 5, 8 and 10 to measure students' progress against the standards. These will not produce results for individuals, merely for schools and districts.
That's not all. In a year, the first statewide test will no longer be bought off the shelf, but will be customized to California's new standards. While that will reinforce the importance of those learning guidelines, it will make it difficult to compare results to a national average.
Still other tests: The Clinton administration is pushing Congress to adopt voluntary national testing--to measure reading levels among fourth-graders and the math proficiency of eighth-graders--beginning in spring 1999. To date, seven states and about 15 large school districts have said they would participate. The U.S. Senate has endorsed the idea, which would cost up to $117 million a year. But the House will vote today on a proposal to block it.
The administration argues that such tests are needed because current testing programs only sample students to compare states--and don't generate scores for individual pupils, schools and districts.