Wilson Ends Controversial Student Testing With Veto

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Gov. Pete Wilson on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have extended the life of California's heralded but problem-plagued student testing system, halting for now the state's controversial experiment in assessing what public schoolchildren know.

In his veto message, Wilson complained that the legislation to continue the California Learning Assessment System for another five years neither required that pupils receive individual test scores nor did a good job of measuring students' mastery of basic skills.

He called on the Legislature, which reconvenes in January, to "give the highest priority" to enacting a new statewide testing program. Maureen DiMarco, the governor's education adviser and a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction in the Nov. 8 election, said new tests could be in place by spring.

A broad array of education, business and other groups that had been pushing for an extension of the CLAS tests condemned the governor's veto, which was announced by DiMarco at a Capitol news conference. Some accused Wilson of caving in to conservative religious groups that had objected to the tone and content of the tests, which were designed to measure thinking and problem-solving skills.

"It's kind of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater," said Karen Russell, who teaches eighth-grade science at Willis Warner Middle School in Westminster and represents much of Orange County on the California Teachers' Assn. board of directors.

"It had its glitches, but we felt it was something worthy of trying to fix," Russell said. "The people who pay the bill need to be shown that we're doing the job. There's no way they can look at anything and say we've done any kind of job--good, bad or indifferent--if there's no accountability system."

Others also said the governor's action wasted the $50 million spent on developing and administering the 3-year-old program and leaves California without any statewide testing system as it grapples with ways to improve schools and student achievement.

"I'm very disappointed," said Jere Jacobs of the California Business Roundtable, a group of executives of large corporations who saw the CLAS tests as a key ingredient in efforts to improve schools.

"We had a momentum here, we had the processes in place, and some corrective action already had been initiated," said Jacobs, a Pacific Telesis executive. ". . . Now we need to pick up and work with the (state leaders) to develop a new system. We cannot have a system as important as public education without any mechanism for accountability and for understanding the performance of our students."

Still, many Orange County educators praised the governor for halting the beleaguered testing system. Several people who have criticized CLAS for months, chiefly saying that it was poorly managed and that its architects had done a terrible job at selling it to the public, said they will focus on developing assessments for individual districts rather than rely on a statewide system.

"We are looking forward to districts having the ability to develop their own standardized tests," said James A. Fleming, superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District.

"For a state of this size and of this importance to not have any statewide way to assess the educational level of its students . . . is clearly not acceptable," Fleming said. "But if the purpose for assessment is to diagnose the educational achievement of a child or group of children so you can target instruction to those children, that is something that schools have done and will do."

But Debbie Hughes, a Saddleback Valley Unified trustee who often spoke out against CLAS, said Tuesday that she was "ecstatic" about the veto.

"A lot of parents have fought an uphill battle, and it's now come to fruition, at least for the time being," Hughes said. Accusing state officials of rushing to give the test before it was properly piloted and discussed with the public, Hughes called CLAS "a very expensive lesson" and said "we cannot afford to waste taxpayers' money on these huge experiments."

State Department of Education officials said the veto--which took with it about $26 million for CLAS and such other statewide tests as the Golden State Exams for high school students--will further delay the kind of assessment system the governor said he wanted.

William D. Dawson, acting superintendent of public instruction, said DiMarco's contention that a new exam system could be developed in time for spring testing is "completely unrealistic." He also disputed her charge that the department "blew it" by not designing a system that conformed to the 1991 legislation authorizing development of CLAS.

The veto follows a series of controversies over CLAS, which debuted last year and was praised nationally as a cutting-edge example of "performance based" testing, an important new tool in improving student achievement. Instead of filling in blanks or multiple-choice circles, students were asked to demonstrate how well they could think about material and solve problems.

They were asked to read passages from literature and write about what they read and relate it to their own experiences, or to solve math problems and explain how they found the solutions.

In 1993, about 1 million public school students in fourth, eighth and 10th grades took the exams in reading, writing and mathematics. To save money, only some of the tests were graded and the results released in February were meant to gauge how the state, school districts and schools looked when compared to tough statewide standards. The giving of individual student marks was to have been phased in, beginning this year.

But problems surfaced almost immediately. Educators complained about mismanagement and problems with the scoring of the exams. Religious conservatives found some of the literary passages "anti-family" or an invasion of students' privacy and waged campaigns against the tests in the courts and their communities.

On Tuesday, a leader of one such group applauded the governor's action.

"We were pushing for the veto; we're very pleased," said the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition. "Wilson's turning out to be a great friend of ours."

DiMarco denied that the veto was politically motivated.

The momentum of religious conservatives lost some steam when courts rejected legal challenges and the Education Department this summer released portions of the reading and writing tests. Meanwhile, a panel of experts asked by Dawson to review scoring methodology found serious problems and recommended that the giving of individual marks on the performance-based portions of the tests be delayed until scoring systems could be perfected.

Many parents throughout the state refused to let their children participate in the tests this spring because of all the controversy. The Fullerton School District was among a handful statewide that actually defied a state mandate to administer the tests.

Fullerton Supt. Duncan Johnson and school board President Robert C. Fisler both said Tuesday that while the governor's veto vindicated their district's boycott of CLAS, they are disappointed to see the test die.

"It's a sadness to me that there's been so much effort and energy expended by so many people to turn out something that has no positive product that I'm aware of," Johnson said.

Fisler added, "Frankly, I'm sorry to hear this. We need tests that encourage thinking, and I think the CLAS test was a step forward in this regard. We want kids to think for themselves, not just learn by memorization."

State Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), author of the original legislation, which was to expire this year, scrambled to address the various concerns in a new bill. In a statement released by his office Tuesday, Hart said he believed that the just-vetoed measure had met the governor's requirements.

"I believe that this veto will set back this state's momentum in education reform by wiping out the only effective tool we had to send a clear message to California teachers that problem-solving skills and effective communication abilities must be taught our students if they are prepared to compete in the fast-paced, highly competitive global economy of the future," said Hart, who is leaving the Legislature at the end of the year.

DiMarco said continuing to work with the CLAS system was "like trying to make an elephant fly." She had previously supported the testing system but recently made criticism of it a focus of her campaign.

Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Fremont), DiMarco's opponent in the race for state superintendent, said the veto represented "a victory of politics over policy. There's no other explanation for it."

Eastin said she favored making further refinements rather than killing a testing system she considered worth saving.

"In private industry, you plan it, do it, check it, refine it. You don't throw it out and start all over again," she said.

Even Wilson's appointed State Board of Education recently urged him unanimously to sign the Hart legislation extending the testing system. On Tuesday, however, board President Marion McDowell sent the governor a letter saying she and her colleagues "understand, appreciate and respect" his reasons for the veto.

Merl reported from Los Angeles, Ingram from Sacramento. Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren also contributed to this story from Orange County.

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