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School Officials Will Continue Giving Controversial CLAS Exam : Thousand Oaks: District representatives will tell state that controversial exam needs revision.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite intense pressure to ban the CLAS test, school officials in Thousand Oaks will continue giving the controversial exam while telling state officials it needs revision.

The Conejo Valley school board’s 3-1 decision to endorse the concept behind the California Learning Assessment System exam came as parents in Ventura County and throughout the state have grown increasingly critical of the test.

Wednesday’s meeting of the Conejo Valley Unified School District board drew an overflow audience of more than 150 parents opposed to CLAS, some of whom said they were bitterly disappointed with the board’s decision.

The audience gave a standing ovation to board member Mildred Lynch, an outspoken critic of CLAS who refused to support the board’s recommendation. Board member Bill Henry did not attend the meeting because he was traveling outside the country.

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Many parents who spoke Wednesday criticized CLAS as an instrument of political correctness, a psychological tool and a huge waste of taxpayers’ money. They said they objected to questions on the reading and writing test that ask students about personal experiences, opinions and beliefs.

“It’s the parents’ responsibility to teach their children about ethics, morality, family values and religion. Not the school and not the state,” said Ken Thorley, who has children in the third and fifth grades.

“Neither the state nor anyone else has the right to rummage around in my family’s collective psyche,” Thorley added, as members of the audience shouted support and burst into loud applause.

Other parents complained that the state was usurping the rights of parents and individual school districts by requiring the test be given. For the second consecutive year, the CLAS test is being given statewide at a cost of about $26 million.

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Referring to last year’s failed school-voucher initiative, parent Sherrie Mithcel said: “Remember that voucher system? It sounds pretty good right now.”

The boisterous crowd grew quiet when fourth-grader Kimberly Westmiller took the podium and told how some test questions had made her uneasy.

“They had questions on the test I felt I should not answer,” she said.

Many of those who spoke said they kept their children home while the CLAS test was given in the fourth, eighth and 10th grades during the past two weeks.

Assistant Supt. Richard Simpson confirmed that 7% of the district’s fourth-graders, 15% of eighth-graders and 40% of 10th-graders have skipped the test. Simpson attributed many of the 10th-grade absences to students who convinced their parents that the testing was optional.

Testing in Thousand Oaks’ schools is nearly complete, district officials said, and should be finished by next week.

Among the roomful of critics, one teacher from Newbury Park High offered her support for the test.

“I do think it’s a good instrument,” said Christine Thompson, chairwoman of the school’s English department. However, Thompson also said she shared the parents’ concerns about the overall cost of the test and the time it took to administer.

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Supt. Jerry Gross told the audience he agreed that CLAS relied too much on “opinion, opinion, opinion” and contained some passages with “themes that are very dark.”

But he said the secretiveness surrounding the exam is no different from other standardized tests given in the past.

In response to many of the criticisms, school board member Richard Newman said he had reviewed copies of this year’s test and found “nothing that would prompt me to keep one of my children home, even though I wasn’t wild about some of what I read.”

“From my standpoint, that test is not the threat you say it is,” he told the crowd.

The board’s recommendation urges state officials to find a better system for picking questions, provide parents with more information, release copies of old tests and reconsider the overall cost of the project.

Board President Dolores Didio said she will present the parents’ concerns about CLAS, along with the board’s suggestions for improvement, to state legislators in May.

Fred Tempes, associate superintendent with the state Department of Education, said such recommendations carry weight when other districts throughout the state offer the same suggestions.

“We’re always trying to improve this thing,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever made claims for perfection.”

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