Rejection of CLAS Tests Is Cheered, Criticized : Education: Some in county call governor's veto 'a great victory for parents.' Others call it a loss for students and teachers.

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Gov. Pete Wilson's veto Tuesday of California's hotly debated student assessment system spread cheer among Ventura County residents who fought against the test and a sense of defeat among supporters.

"I'm tickled to death," said Mildred Lynch, a Conejo Valley school board member and former English teacher who testified before state legislators in opposition to the California Learning Assessment System. The rejection of the exam was "a great victory for parents because it was a grass-roots effort," she said.

But some county teachers, parents and school administrators called Wilson's action a loss for students and teachers.

"We were hoping a lot of the difficulties could be worked out and we would have a significant assessment tool," said Linda Valdez, English department chairwoman at Camarillo High School, where students surpassed the county average on the 1992 CLAS test. "Now that's not going to happen."

Wilson vetoed legislation that would have continued CLAS for five years. His action came after state officials' failure to agree on what sort of skills the test should measure and Wilson's insistence that CLAS yield scores for individual students in addition to schools and districts.

"I'm jubilant," said Coleen Ary, a Simi Valley parent who heads a conservative group, Citizens for Truth in Education, that opposed CLAS. "This was a bad test administered by a bad State Board of Education done with bad planning. There wasn't anything good about it."

Developed over the past several years and first given to students statewide in 1992, CLAS marked a sharp departure from traditional assessment exams.

Through separate tests in math, reading, writing and social science, CLAS asked students not only to answer questions but to explain their responses in writing.

Furor initially arose over the exam's reading and writing sections, which included literary excerpts--such as one from Richard Wright's acclaimed autobiography "Black Boy"--that opponents said were too violent and disturbing for young students.

Critics also argued that the test failed to emphasize basic skills such as spelling and arithmetic and that it invaded students' privacy by asking them to compare the experiences of literary characters to their own lives.

And CLAS was expensive, partly because of how it was scored.

While computers are able to scan the answer sheets of standardized multiple-choice tests, the state had to hire a cadre of teachers to read and score the essay-type questions on CLAS. California has spent $50 million developing and administering the exams.

Ventura parent Geri Fortner said Wilson was right not to try to salvage CLAS because the exam was fundamentally flawed. It cost too much money, she said, and the scoring of its essay-type questions was too subjective. "They started with something that wasn't good to begin with," she said.

But CLAS supporters said the exam marked a revolutionary change in testing that has served as a model nationwide. Rather than throwing out the exam, they said, the state should have continued to refine it.

"It's like throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Simi Valley school board member Debbie Sandland said. "This is really unfortunate."

Some educators who supported CLAS said they believe Wilson's veto had less to do with education than politics because the governor wants the votes of CLAS opponents in the November election.

"It's very shortsighted, and I think it's political," said Bob Pease, English department chairman at Buena High School in Ventura. CLAS, he said, "was aimed at . . . making teaching more effective."

By testing students on critical-thinking skills and problem-solving abilities, supporters said, CLAS encouraged teachers to focus on these areas in the classroom.

But CLAS' fatal flaw, some educators said, was that it was crafted with too little assistance from the community.

"My view is that the CLAS test started out with inadequate teacher and community input and in many ways it was doomed from the start," said Jerry Gross, superintendent for the Conejo Valley Unified School District.

But Ventura parent Kay Sredl said she believes some CLAS opponents felt threatened because the exam was so unfamiliar.

"I think some of the resistance is that these tests are different than what everybody was accustomed to," she said.

Teachers had planned to give CLAS exams again this spring. But Wilson's decision leaves schools in Ventura County and around California without any statewide assessment test for the first time in a decade.

Diana Rigby, a curriculum director for the county superintendent of schools, said she believes the governor's decision to veto CLAS was political.

Whether the exam will survive his action, she said, may depend in part on who is elected this November as state superintendent of public instruction. Of the leading contenders, Delaine Easton supports CLAS, and Maureen DiMarco, Wilson's education adviser, opposes the exam.

At any rate, Rigby said, state officials probably will propose another assessment system that will include some features of CLAS.

"I think what you'll see is a mixture," Rigby said. "You'll see some open-ended questions, such as on CLAS. You'll see some multiple-choice."

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