A Key Question for Any Test : CLAS exams must have public support

The integrity of the innovative California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) tests is under attack. What started as a small but vocal campaign by special interest religious groups is beginning to mushroom into doubts raised by a cross section of parents and educators. If these tests, which deserve a smarter defense than they have received so far, are to have any political chance of survival, public confidence must be restored.

A variety of complaints have been lodged against the new, academically rigorous tests, which were administered last year and are being given again this spring to more than a million public school students in the fourth, eighth and 10th grades. The bulk of the complaints have focused on the content of the tests.

AVALANCHE: At first the objections were laughably silly and easily dismissed; contortions of some of the literature passages led some opponents to actually complain that a story with a description of a snowball fight was too violent. But rumors grew and before long there were more questions. Some parents asked, appropriately, do these new tests elicit "feelings" instead of critical thinking? Do test questions probe the personal or family life of a student? Before long, questions that were never on the test were being circulated as examples of what the test offered.

The state Department of Education, protective of the confidentiality of the test, seemed to forget that there would be no tests to protect without broad-based political support--from parents, teachers, school boards and the holder of the purse strings, the Legislature. The department denied that any questions were inappropriate, but when questioning parents sought more reassurance they too often were told, in effect, trust us. By the time the department, under pressure, agreed that individual students could opt out of the now-controversial tests, opponents were on to their next move, demanding in a pending lawsuit that the tests not be given without advance written parental consent.

PRIVACY ISSUE: Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), the sponsor of the bill that created CLAS, knows he now needs to shore up political support for the tests. He is sponsoring legislative amendments that among other things would expressly prohibit questions on the test that relate to students' or parents' personal beliefs about family life, sex, morality or religion (a restatement of the state Education Code); require an independent panel review; require samples from previous tests be made available to the public. The bill aims at addressing legitimate privacy and access concerns.

Hart's bill deserves support because it would move to reassure and better inform confused parents, the overwhelming majority of whom do not support the narrow political or religious agendas espoused by many vocal critics of CLAS. What most California parents do support is testing that helps cultivate and measure children's critical thinking skills to prepare them for joining the work force of the 21st Century. And that's just what CLAS was designed to do.

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