Adding a big new voice to the spreading controversy over the California Learning Assessment System, the Wilson Administration has called for an independent review and a financial audit of the pioneering exams, which the governor's education adviser said were "seriously flawed."
"We can no longer wait for the Department of Education to act on its own to resolve the public's concern and restore confidence to the CLAS exam," Maureen DiMarco, Gov. Pete Wilson's secretary for child development and education, said in a statement released late Sunday.
Referring to the CLAS tests, Wilson said: "It appears that the execution of this good idea has been disastrous."
His letter to Auditor General Kurt Sjoberg asked that the review pay "particular attention" to the procedures used to develop the test questions and to the process used by the education department in selecting a private contractor to handle exam administration.
In other developments, the California Teachers Assn., the state's largest teachers union and an early supporter of CLAS, also blasted the State Department of Education's handling of the system. CTA President Del Weber on Sunday called for the exams to be suspended until a full review by a panel of teachers, parents and other concerned citizens can be conducted. On Monday, the Senate Rules Committee set up procedures for legislators to begin reviewing the tests later this week. Like other standardized exams, the CLAS tests are kept confidential to protect their fairness and effectiveness.
The state's top education department official defended the tests and said he welcomes the audit. But he also hinted that DiMarco was using the controversy to further her campaign for state superintendent of public instruction in the June 7 primary election.
Wilson and DiMarco have been strong supporters of CLAS, which is scheduled to be phased in over several years. But all along they have called for the inclusion of more traditional approaches, such as multiple-choice questions. They sought less emphasis on the open-ended, "performance-based" items that have brought the new system praise from education reformers, testing experts and business leaders--but criticism from others.
The 2-year-old system of tests, currently being used statewide for public school students in grades four, five, eight and 10, were first attacked last year by religious conservatives, who contended that the reading and writing portions of the exams are anti-religion, anti-family values and invasive of students' privacy by improperly asking questions that touch on personal or family experiences and views.
The organized campaign against the tests, which attempt to assess higher-level thinking skills by asking students to write about their reactions to literature selections, picked up steam after controversies developed over scoring and implementation. As more school board members began privately reviewing the tests in response to the furor, the controversy mushroomed, especially over questions on the eighth- and 10th-grade reading and writing tests.
Much of the uproar has centered on whether questions pry into students' beliefs or practices about family life, sex, morality or religious aspects of students' private lives and whether the tests should require parent permission.
DiMarco, who has not seen the exams, said her concerns go beyond issues of privacy. After speaking with "numerous" school board members who have seen the tests, DiMarco said, she became worried that the tests may further racial or ethnic stereotypes. She said she has heard complaints that some passages were "questionable as sexist or portraying handicaps in a stereotypical manner."
"I have major concerns about the questions that appear on the eighth- and 10th-grade language arts exams, and I seriously question whether the items actually measure the skills CLAS was designed to test," DiMarco wrote in a memo to the governor over the weekend. She requested an audit of how the Department of Education spent the almost $28 million allotted for test development and administration, as well as a review of the tests by an independent panel made up of "parents and other parties who are legitimately concerned" about test content.
DiMarco said Monday that her office has been "trying to get the department to fix this and restore the system to credibility, and they have refused."
At a Sacramento news conference, William D. Dawson, acting state superintendent, said he is supportive of an independent examination of the test items and welcomes refinements.
But he said the remarks by the CTA, Wilson and DiMarco are "much too hot for the interests of schools and kids" and play into the hands of test opponents. He described opponents as "very conservative individuals and organizations who are using extraordinary myths, and in some cases outright lies, about what is on the test and basically stampeding others."
Dawson said he would have preferred DiMarco to have used a "more measured and problem-solving tone. (But) this is a time of the making of strong statements for election purposes."
DiMarco denied that her criticisms are electioneering.
Dawson also insisted that although the Wilson Administration, school boards, the CTA and others have criticized the CLAS process, they have continued to support the system's basic goals and direction.
Merl reported from Los Angeles and Ingram from Sacramento.