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The Dark Fears Behind the CLAS Tests

The chicken and dumplings were on the stove; the propaganda on the dining table. The pot was boiling and so were the parents.

Debbie Greenfield makes no secret about her dumpling recipe; it requires the shredding of flour tortillas. If she could, she’d shred the California Learning Assessment System test, and so would her friend Gary Thomason.

To them, CLAS isn’t confidential; it’s secretive. To them, CLAS isn’t a test; it’s a tool of Big Brother. It’s the worst kind of propaganda, they say: A sneak attack on the American family. That’s why these West Hills parents won’t allow their kids to take the exam at Justice Street Elementary School. That’s why they sued the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“I think the agenda,” says Debbie, a 46-year-old mother of three, “is to split the family.”

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For some parents, Gary worries, “the end result is that . . . Social Services comes to your house and your child is taken away.”

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Such are the darkest fears that fuel the CLAS debate. What began as the ripple of protest among the religious right has become a tidal wave of suspicion. Not many parents, one suspects, seriously fear that CLAS tests will strip them of their children; after all, child abuse may be revealed in a paper titled “My Summer Vacation.” But plenty of people wonder why the schools won’t show parents something that is being shown to their kids.

That’s Debbie Greenfield’s first complaint. It was only three weeks ago, she says, that she heard something on talk radio and asked some questions that made her an anti-CLAS firebrand.

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To Debbie, it matters little that a Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday that the exam questions do not violate state privacy laws. “It’s not over,” Debbie says.

That much is obvious. On Wednesday, state Sen. Bill Leonard released copies of the CLAS tests. The Department of Education says that would compromise the test and cost taxpayers millions of dollars. But at least disclosure should help separate the facts and the fantasy of CLAS.

On this day in Debbie’s dining room, there was no way to tell. To Debbie, the short story “Just Lather, That’s All,” by Hernando Torres, should be “R-rated” because it depicts a barber’s vivid contemplation of slashing an evil customer’s throat. To Debbie, “The Filipino and the Drunkard,” by William Saroyan, is “an insult to the American veteran” because, after all, the antagonist is a racist drunk who served in World War I. And to her, “Teeny, Tiny, Tinny Visitors” by Fonda Crews Bell is the most offensive, because it describes little metallic E.T.s who tell a girl that they will “melt ourselves down” if not allowed to colonize the Earth. Debbie points out the girl’s sympathy toward immigrants, but what really bothers her is the reference to suicide.

Yes, Debbie admits, any story can be nit-picked. “Little Red Riding Hood,” after all, features a cross-dressing wolf. And is there a story more rife with teen rebellion, gang violence, homicide and suicide than “Romeo and Juliet”?

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But what really angers Debbie are the questions that follow. When students are asked to relate these tales to their own life, she asks, isn’t that a violation of privacy? “It’s not the reading material, per se. It’s the pumping by the state for information,” she says.

Susie Lange, a spokeswoman of the state Department of Education, has the difficult task of defending CLAS without revealing its contents. Reporters play games with her. She can say, for example, that “Just Lather, That’s All” and “The Filipino and the Drunkard” are not on the CLAS test, but have found their way into the CLAS mythology. Another common misconception, she says, is that students are asked whether their families own guns. This apparently grew out of a pilot exam that included essays that were pro- and anti-gun control. The real propaganda, Lange says, is the misinformation spread by the opponents.

Lange tends to talk around some questions, such as the excerpt from Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” directed toward eighth-graders. This is a first-person tale in which a hungry boy, robbed of grocery money by a gang of bullies, receives first a slap from his mother and then a stick with which he violently defends himself from future attacks. This exercise, it seems, also includes a poem called “My Parents” and another titled “Woman With Flower,” by Naomi Long Madgett:

I wouldn’t coax the plant if I were you.

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Such watchful nurturing may do it harm . . . .

The leaf’s inclined to find its own direction;

Give it a chance to seek the sunlight for itself.

Much growth is stunted by too careful prodding,

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Too eager tenderness.

The things we love we have to learn to leave alone.

Debbie doesn’t like this poem. Where, she asks, does the state get off telling kids that their parents should learn to leave them alone?


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