In a significant victory for supporters of the embattled California Learning Assessment System tests, a Los Angeles judge ruled Tuesday that exam questions do not invade students' privacy.
Superior Court Judge Robert H. O'Brien denied a bid by the United States Justice Foundation to require parental permission before schools can administer the CLAS tests in reading and writing to students in grades four, eight and 10. Brought on behalf of two parents of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the lawsuit has been widely watched around the state as the first major test of CLAS opponents' contentions that exams violate a state privacy law.
CLAS critics based their suit on Section 60650 of the state Education Code, enacted in 1968, which states that "no test, questionnaire, survey or examination containing any questions about the pupil's personal beliefs or practices in sex, family life, morality and religion" or those of his or her family, shall be given without first obtaining written parental permission.
The 2-year-old system of tests, which also includes math, science and social studies, attempts to assess higher-order thinking skills by asking students to write about their reactions to literature selections. Last year, 10th-graders were asked to read an excerpt from black author Richard Wright's autobiography and relate it to their own experiences.
O'Brien, who reviewed copies of the confidential tests, said the materials "are obviously designed to elicit analytical, comprehension and writing abilities. . . . The questions are not designed to elicit the prohibited information. More importantly, they, in fact, do not call for a revelation of the pupil's parents' or guardians' beliefs and practices on the prohibited subjects."
Additionally, he said the state law is vague in its reference to "morality" and "family life" and could be challenged on constitutional grounds.
To protect the confidentiality of the tests, portions of which have fallen into opponents' hands, O'Brien ordered court records containing exam questions sealed.
The open-ended, "performance-based" items have brought the new system praise from education reformers, testing experts and business leaders but criticism from others, including groups of conservatives who say the tests are invasive and anti-religion or anti-family.
The ruling was a big boost to the state Department of Education, which has been under attack for its handling of the test's development and the growing controversy over the exams. Department officials, who got court permission to enter the case against the Los Angeles district last week, said the ruling should offer clear guidance to school boards that are grappling with whether to give the tests, as required by law.
"We are finally seeing some reasoned, careful, independent action here that will help sort out the myths," acting Supt. of Public Instruction William D. Dawson said. "This really should set aside with a great deal of authority those concerns about (invasion of privacy.)"
However, Dawson said the department will continue to allow objecting parents to get their children excused from the exams.
An attorney for the Los Angeles district, where exams have been completed or are under way this week for about half the 170,000 eligible students, said the ruling affirms what education officials have been saying all along--that there is nothing to fear from the exams.
"I hope people will pay attention to it," attorney Howard Friedman said.
The head of the Escondido-based Justice Foundation said it will likely appeal O'Brien's ruling.
"Obviously, we're disappointed," said Gary Kreep of the foundation, one of two groups that have sued about 50 California school districts over the tests. "The judge has emasculated parents' rights in California."
A spokesman for the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, the other group bringing lawsuits over the tests, downplayed the significance of the ruling, which represents the first time a court has acted after hearing arguments on key issues involving the exams. Rutherford spokesman Brad Dacus noted that there are several hearings scheduled next week in suits his organization has brought seeking to halt the tests.
The ruling came the same day that officials of the Redondo Beach Unified School District announced that they will stop giving their students the reading and writing portions of the exam.
In a terse, two-sentence statement, the school board said it supported the assessment process but wanted the State Board of Education, the state superintendent and legislators to do a "thorough review of the CLAS language arts content."
Statewide, four other school districts have refused to give at least some of the tests, and board members of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Orange County voted 4 to 2 Tuesday night to require parental permission before CLAS tests are given to eighth- and 10th-graders.
Times staff writer Lisa Richardson also contributed to this story.