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Union May Advise L.A. Teachers Not to Aid Test Query

Times Education Writer

Union lawyers may advise some Los Angeles teachers not to cooperate with the planned investigation of cheating on state achievement tests and student writing competency exams, according to a union official who complained that the probe is designed to cover up administrators’ wrongdoing.

“Our job is to protect the legal rights of our members,” Marvin Katz, vice president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, American Federation of Teachers, said Friday. The Los Angeles Unified School District intends to hire an independent investigator in the next few weeks to look into the testing scandal, and the district’s special counsel Friday estimated that the probe would cost at least $50,000.

However, Katz said he would rather have the district attorney or state attorney general handle the matter. “At least, you’d know that they don’t have another motive,” he said.

Supports Investigation

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Katz said he supports an investigation of irregularities on last spring’s and summer’s district writing exam required for high school graduation. But he stressed that an independent investigation into tampering on the California Assessment Program tests of two and three years ago should have been conducted last year after the district first learned of possible cheating and not delayed until news reports, he said, built pressure for such a probe.

The district’s own investigation into cheating on the 1985-86 CAP tests was abandoned without confronting any suspects because of ethical and legal questions, officials said.

“Now, they are going to be going over a cold trail, trying to find snips and bits of information based primarily on hearsay,” Katz said. “Frankly, I don’t know what the investigation is going to do except to make the district look good.”

School board member Alan Gershman said he hopes the union will cooperate with the investigation because teachers as well as administrators will be questioned. “No one is saying anything about a particular category of employees,” Gershman said.

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Cost Put at $50,000

The district’s special counsel, Richard K. Mason, said he expects the school board will choose from among several options in scope and cost in hiring an individual, a law firm or an auditing firm for the investigation. At the minimum, he estimated, the investigation will cost $50,000 and will take at least six weeks.

School board member Jackie Goldberg said: “We certainly don’t want to spend an arm and a leg. But we will spend what it takes.”

Mason and several board members said that students are likely to be questioned during the probe but that parental permission probably would be sought first.

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Several board members acknowledged that questioning students and employees might raise touchy issues. But Mason promised that questioning would be done in a sensitive manner, especially with the youngsters. “We don’t intend to be a rampaging bull in a china shop,” he said.

Students have little stake in doing well on the state CAP tests but passing the writing competency exam means the difference between receiving a full graduation diploma or the less-respected certificate of completion, officials say.

“Students and their families take it very seriously,” Goldberg said of the writing exam. Students can take the test repeatedly from the ninth grade on until they pass it.

The investigator will not push for criminal penalties against anyone found to have tampered with the state tests, according to Mason. But he said that he expected the district attorney “would be interested” in any such findings.

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Willful falsification of state documents--including the CAP tests--could lead to misdemeanor or felony charges, according to state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig. Honig said that it is unlikely that any criminal charges would come of the 50 schools statewide implicated in the CAP scandal but that he welcomed investigations that might lead to disciplinary action.

Los Angeles schools Supt. Leonard Britton has said that teachers and administrators could face firing if they tampered with the tests results.

Students guilty of cheating on the writing competency test will be forced to take it again and might be suspended from school for a while, school principals said Friday, although some added that they would not suspend a student likely to drop out of school altogether.

The planned investigation will look at alleged cheating at 24 Los Angeles schools on the CAP tests of the last three years.

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