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Bid to End State Testing of 2nd-Graders Spurs Backlash

Teachers union strongly opposes the exams, but some officials say tests can aid in instruction.

August 21, 2003|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Some California lawmakers and the state's most powerful teachers union are seeking to end the annual testing of second-graders, because of the costs involved and concerns about subjecting young children to hours of exams each spring.

A bill to eliminate the assessments for 465,000 second-graders, the youngest students to face state exams, has passed through the state Assembly and is being weighed in the Senate, where it enjoys strong support.

But the bill is meeting with backlash from state education officials and school district leaders -- even some teachers -- who fear that schools would lose valuable information about pupils.

Teachers and administrators at several schools in Southern California said they pored over the results to identify children who needed extra attention and to refine their instructional practices. Eager to get an early look at students' strengths and weaknesses, some school districts, including Los Angeles Unified, give standardized tests in first grade, although the results are not counted by the state.

"We have so many children who are learning English. By assessing [them] in second grade, we get valuable information on how well they are learning to read," said Kerry Mazzoni, the state secretary for education. "That's extremely important, if we want them to be proficient readers in third grade."

Some parents, wary of weighing their children down with too many tests, nonetheless appreciate the information the exams yield.

"It provides a little bit of stability of where my son should be in terms of grade level," said Claudia Soto, a Compton mother who has a son entering second grade.

The tug of war over the testing bill could create a political bind for Gov. Gray Davis, who has yet to take a position on it but who is an enthusiastic supporter of assessment and school accountability.

If the bill makes it to his desk as expected, he will face a tough decision: Signing it would expose him to attacks for backtracking on testing, which lies at the heart of his school accountability system. Vetoing it, however, would put Davis at risk of alienating an important union -- the California Teachers Assn., which sponsored the legislation.

"The governor certainly doesn't shy away from testing," said his spokesman Russ Lopez. "But he is open to hearing arguments and suggestions. He wants to be clear that this will benefit the schools, the students and teachers."

The author of the measure, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), said scrapping the second-grade tests would save the state $2 million a year; that money would then be freed for other educational expenses. She said the tests in reading, spelling and math unnecessarily stress children and consume valuable time better spent on instruction.

Hancock also said that dropping the second-grade tests would more closely align California's testing system with the federal No Child Left Behind education law, which requires annual testing of students in grades three through eight and 10. California now tests students in grades two to 11.

"It seems extremely unnecessary," said Hancock, a former official in the U.S. Department of Education, whose bill would eliminate the second-grade testing starting in the 2004-05 academic year. She added that school textbooks already include diagnostic tests that allow teachers to quickly identify stragglers.

"Right now, we are using [tests] that may do harm to a number of children in ... damaging their self-esteem," she said. "It makes school the place where you fail, especially for young children, out of the gate."

The tests taken by California's second-graders have 233 questions and last six hours, spread over a week. The exams assess dozens of basic skills:

Students must be able to read multisyllabic words, identify plural nouns and recognize common abbreviations (such as "Jan.," "Sun." and "Mr."), among other things. Children also must be able to add and subtract, know their multiplication tables and show a rudimentary understanding of fractions. The test questions are based primarily on the state's academic standards in English-language arts and math.

Eliminating second-graders from the test-takers would erase some of the greatest gains that school districts have touted in the last several years. Just last week L.A. Unified boasted that its test scores among second-graders went up 13 points in math -- more than in any other grade tested. "We gain from the testing of second-graders," said Supt. Roy Romer. "We are looking at tests to know whether instruction is occurring and how to improve it."

Since the tests were introduced six years ago, however, they have earned mixed reviews from teachers and principals.

Dorothy Chu, a second-grade teacher at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in Bell Gardens, says the tests frustrate her students, who sometimes guess at answers and develop other bad habits.

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