Orange County Voices : COMMENTARY ON EDUCATION : Results From Flawed CLAS Tests Shouldn’t Be Taken to Heart : Scores by state’s students don’t represent their true levels of achievement and unfairly vilify local school programs.


Recently officials of our state government had an opportunity to demonstrate candor and political courage. Sadly for our public schools, they chose not to take it. Instead they chose to publish the flawed CLAS test results as if these results were true representations of student academic skill in California, and in doing so, vilified the efforts of local school districts throughout the state.

While it is clear on a number of measures that there is need for improvement in California schools, the 1994 CLAS test results should not be used as an indicator of anything.

It was just 12 months ago when the governor’s own select committee concluded that the CLAS test had major operational and statistical design flaws, which were compounded by the format of the test questions themselves. California Secretary of Child Education and Welfare Maureen DiMarco accurately noted that the convoluted format of the reading test did not test basic reading skills. The math test, which relied on a subjective scoring system for complex, open-ended questions, was designed in such a way as to predetermine that few student responses would be ranked highly.


Thus it was not surprising that almost no students scored in the highest ranges on the CLAS test. The dismal showing on the CLAS test by even our state’s brightest students is a clear example of the misleading nature of the test results and flies directly in the face of the significant number of California students who consistently score in the highest ranges of the SAT College Entrance Exams, on Advanced Placement English and calculus exams, and Golden State exams in math and science.

The CLAS test gives credence to the statements by many noted test experts that the “science” of psychometrics (test measurement), has not discovered a reliable method for consistently and reliably scoring open-ended, performance-based questions on large-scale statewide assessments. It is not a coincidence that Kentucky has recently suspended its effort on a similar “performance-based,” statewide assessment, and Arizona has dropped its efforts completely.

As if the technical problems of the CLAS test were not significant enough, the 1994 administration was contaminated by continued mismanagement of the test materials themselves, as well as the controversy which raged while it was being administered in classrooms.

At many schools, test materials arrived late or incomplete, causing special testing schedules to be delayed or rearranged. Meanwhile, parents and school district officials up and down our state began to question the content of many of its questions, and some parents removed their children from even taking the test. Administration of the test had to be stopped and restarted until test schedules were stretched to the closing weeks of school, and students and teachers were left wondering if the exercise meant anything at all.

Clearly, no important conclusions should have been drawn from this assessment. Although Capistrano Unified students performed relatively well on CLAS, scoring an average of 17 points higher than the state averages on all tests, we are not congratulating ourselves.

Instead, we are remaining focused on improving our curriculum while we create our own comprehensive assessment system, capable of providing our students, parents and teachers with accurate and timely measures of student learning on a year-to-year basis. Interestingly, we are finding that this process is neither difficult nor mysterious, but rather requires the application of the effort of classroom teachers in partnership with test experts in a common-sense approach to achievement testing.


We have also been working over the past year to improve our English/language arts and math curriculums. We did not need the contrived CLAS test results to conclude that the state’s curriculum framework had become extreme in its sacrifice of basic skill development in favor of an emphasis on higher-order application skills.

We believe that phonics, grammar and spelling skills should be taught as intrinsic parts of literature-rich English/language arts reading and writing instruction. In mathematics, we believe students must master basic computational skills as well as solve challenging, “meaningful” problems taken from the real world.

It is time for California’s political leadership to stop attempting to manipulate public opinion about our schools and start focusing fiscal and human resources in our classrooms, where real progress can be made.

From the moment the state confronted the failure of CLAS, political courage was needed to admit the failure, drop the test and move on to developing a cost-efficient statewide test capable of accurately providing essential information about the effectiveness of our schools. The precious millions of education dollars that were wasted collecting the 1994 CLAS tests, scoring them and publishing their flawed results could have been spent supporting substantial instructional improvements throughout the state.

Our state was once known for the finest public schools in the nation. Today, it has slipped to 42nd nationally in per-pupil spending, and has the largest class sizes and lowest ratio of library books-to-students in the country. Our local public schools have become, by necessity, frugal institutions struggling to provide high-quality education.

What schools need is for our politicians to take education-bashing off their rhetorical menu. We need moral leadership that fosters effective local school improvement efforts, provides schools with adequate fiscal support and frees our schools from the morass of bureaucracy that produced some of the extremes seen in current curriculum frameworks, the CLAS test and California’s convoluted multivolume Education Codes.