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L.A. District Gives Parents Option on Tests

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles Unified School District officials said Friday that they will allow parents to exempt their children from taking state-mandated CLAS performance tests, which have been under fire for allegedly being anti-family and inappropriate for children.

Bill Rivera, spokesman for the state’s largest district, said the decision came before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge exempted two San Fernando Valley students Friday morning from taking the controversial exams. Judge Robert H. O’Brien also demanded a copy of the test to determine whether other students should be exempted.

The CLAS exams, which were first given last year, are used to compare student work in each school against tough statewide performance standards in reading, writing, math and other subjects. The students are required to answer essay questions and are allowed to discuss material before answering questions.

But parents and religious groups from throughout the state have filed lawsuits to prevent the California Learning Assessment System tests from being administered. They complain that the exams invade students’ privacy rather than measure academic achievement.

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“Our purpose is to make sure that children are not questioned about their personal beliefs or family life,” said Bob Levy, a Woodland Hills attorney who filed the lawsuit on behalf of two West Hills parents. “Children learn from their families, and the school board shouldn’t interfere with that.”

State education officials, however, reiterated their support for the CLAS tests, saying the state has made tremendous progress and will continue to push for the expansion of the exams.

In a strongly worded statement, acting State Supt. of Public Instruction William D. Dawson said the tests’ critics are deceiving the public.

“Many of the tactics being used by those engaged in lawsuits and spreading misinformation about the contents of the CLAS exam are, in my view, intended to destroy performance-based assessment, and to discredit the public schools, rather than to cause any kind of constructive change,” Dawson said.

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In addition, Dawson said his staff will revise the test development and review procedures to include the public. In a news release, Dawson said the process will be changed to “ensure that the content of the CLAS examination is educationally sound and publicly acceptable.”

State Education Department officials told districts on Thursday that they could allow parents to opt out of the tests. School districts also were told to let parents review sample copies of the tests.

Susie Lange, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the L.A. school district’s decision was theirs to make and that it is too early to tell its effect.

“We assume the majority of the kids will take it,” Lange said. “The test is moving ahead. Hundreds of kids have already taken it. We intend to score them. The test is onward.”

In the meantime, the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District late Thursday night became the second in the state to refuse to give the controversial tests, following the lead of the Antelope Valley Union High School District.

In Orange County, Orange Unified also agreed to allow parents to remove their children from CLAS testing.

In the Los Angeles district, board members said they will likely review the CLAS tests in a closed session to better understand the parents’ concerns.

“It’s really hard for me to make an informed decision about it until I see it,” said board member Mark Slavkin. “I don’t want to create the impression that testing kids is something parents should fear exposing their children to. I think the CLAS test is a step in the right direction . . . but it’s been shrouded in secrecy.”

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Lange said the tests are available to school board members--who must review them in closed sessions--but they cannot be released to the public. She said the tests are considered a trade secret and that their release could violate copyright and other laws.

Rivera said the district understands its obligation under the law to give the tests but that parents should have a right to exclude their children. He said parents will be allowed to send notes to their local schools or tell school principals if they don’t want their children tested.

Critics have complained that the tests, which cost $15 million to develop and administer, are inappropriate for young children and do not measure academics but rather politically correct thinking.

“Who’s to determine what is politically correct--it’s all opinion,” said Debbie Greenfield, whose son is in the fourth-grade at Justice Street Elementary in West Hills and who was named in the lawsuit. “This type of testing belongs on the college level. These kids cannot be expected to answer these questions.”

Gary Thomason, whose son is in the fifth grade at Justice and who also was named in the lawsuit, said the tests “clearly” do not measure students’ academic achievement.

“This has nothing to do with academics and it’s not pass-fail,” Thomason said “You don’t have to be a person of any religious following to see that this is tracking what’s going on in kids’ homes.”

Board members for the 1,850-student district that serves the rural communities of Acton and Agua Dulce in north Los Angeles County made their decision after hearing concerns from dozens of parents, who expressed unhappiness with the secrecy of the test and the questions students are asked.

“What the state is saying is, ‘Mom and Dad you are no longer a participant in education, you are a spectator in education,’ ” said board member Becky Small. “As a trustee I feel accountable to not only my students but to the family.”

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Also contributing to this story was Times correspondent Sharon Moeser in the Antelope Valley.


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