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Schools Challenge Mandatory Testing

Education: L.A. and San Francisco districts seek to alter or scrap Stanford 9 and exit exams.

May 29, 2002|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two of California's biggest school districts took preliminary steps Tuesday toward changing or abandoning the much-criticized Stanford 9 test and California's new high school exit exam.

The Los Angeles Board of Education decided to study alternative assessments for gauging student academic achievement.

The San Francisco school board introduced a nearly identical measure as two of its members urged an end to the tests altogether.

But it's unclear whether the actions will amount to anything more than a protest because the state's 1,000 school districts are required by federal and state laws to administer the exams or ones like them. Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer urged the school board not to challenge state testing rules.

Some school leaders in the two cities argued that standardized tests perpetuate discrimination against poor and minority children, many of whom attend crowded schools and do not speak English fluently.

"Standardized tests do not necessarily measure what our kids are learning in the classroom but [reflect] socioeconomic status and resources in schools," said Jose Huizar, vice president of the Los Angeles board. "A majority of our kids don't have the life experience that these tests are testing."

The proposal passed 4 to 1, with David Tokofsky voting against it, saying that he fears the district would be breaking state law. (Marlene Canter abstained and Mike Lansing was absent.) The measure stopped short of calling for an end to the Stanford 9 and the high school exit exam. It instructed district staff to develop alternative ways within six months to measure academic progress. Those changes could include supplements to the current exams.

Both exams are key parts of Gov. Gray Davis' education reforms. The Stanford 9 has been the primary component of the state's Academic Performance Index, which is used to rank schools, dole out awards for campuses that improve and punish those that falter. The high school exit test goes into effect for the graduating class of 2004.

A Davis spokeswoman defended the tests as a fair and equitable way to ensure that schools deliver a quality education to all of the state's 6 million public school students.

"I think it would be a crying shame if two of the largest school districts in the state decided that their kids are not worth testing and their schools aren't worth being held accountable for educating their students," said Hilary McLean, a Davis spokeswoman.

Los Angeles and San Francisco join a growing national backlash against standardized testing. Community groups and educators in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and elsewhere have voiced concerns about high-stakes exams that determine the fate of students, schools and entire districts.

The critics note that African Americans and Latinos have for decades scored lower than whites and Asian Americans on national tests of reading, math and science.

In Los Angeles, the sharply worded measure criticized the Stanford 9 and high school exit exam for discriminating against students with limited English skills.

The measure also said that district schools in poor and minority neighborhoods have fewer resources--including a shortage of materials, college prep classes and certificated teachers. Relying on such tests, the proposals said, unfairly penalizes students in these schools.

"There are huge inequities that exist in this district for poor children and immigrant children," board member Genethia Hayes, one of the measure's sponsors, said during the meeting.

Hayes, Huizar, Julie Korenstein and Caprice Young voted for it over the objections of the district's general counsel, Hal Kwalwasser. He said that the measure's wording about unequal resources in low-income communities could undermine the district's position in a legal settlement aimed at equalizing funding across district schools.

Romer also insisted that the measure would send the wrong message to students and parents.

"I do not believe that we as a district should do anything here today to encourage parents and youngsters to believe that this is a racist test and we shouldn't use it," Romer said. "The consequence is that they won't be encouraged to prepare for it and pass it. The people who will be hurt will be the students themselves."

About 250 students, parents and teachers from a grass-roots group called Coalition for Educational Justice rallied outside school district headquarters as the school board debated the measure. The protesters marched with signs and banners that said "End Racist Tests--City Schools Deserve the Best," and chanted: "Hey, hey, ho, ho, the Stanford 9 has got to go."

After the vote, the protesters cheered.

"What just happened in there was a big victory for racial justice," Alex Caputo Pearl, an organizer, said after the board vote.

Later in the day, the San Francisco school board introduced a nearly identical measure modeled after the Los Angeles motion. The San Francisco board is expected to vote on its version next month.

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