Few Protest as Golden State Exams Are Cut

Times Staff Writer

Parents and school administrators dread most state budget cuts in education, but one took place this week with little mourning: reductions in the Golden State Examinations.

Students who perform well on these voluntary tests receive special stickers on their diplomas, and sometimes special notations on their transcripts that could help with college admissions. And in school districts that don't offer Advanced Placement exams, parts of the Golden State Exam can be used to compete for the $2,500 Governor's Distinguished Math and Science Scholars Award.

But since the Golden State Exams began 16 years ago, other tests have claimed time in California classrooms and have come to overshadow them.

So there were few protests when Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill this week that, among other cuts, eliminated $8.8 million from the original $15.4-million Golden State Exam budget for this year. As a result, exams in 10 subject areas that were scheduled for May are now canceled, said Richard Diaz, who oversees the Golden State Exams for the California Department of Education.

They are: first-year algebra, geometry, economics, government/civics, U.S. history, biology, chemistry, physics, second-year coordinated science and second-year Spanish language. Only two revised Golden State Exams -- reading-writing and high school mathematics -- will be given in May, as part of coordinated testing with the California Standards Tests.

Many parent activists say they prefer to sacrifice the optional exams rather than increase class sizes or lay off teachers.

"It's in the bottom third of my concerns," said Kristie Watkins, president of the Long Beach Unified School District's Parent Teacher Assn. Council, whose son Doug is a freshman at Lakewood High School. "If there was the option of taking the Golden State Exams or having a library in our school, I'd rather have the library."

Ruth Grubb, whose daughter Diana was supposed to take the chemistry exam this spring at Pacific Palisades Charter High School, which ranked second last year statewide in the number of Golden State Exam takers, said she was glad the tests are being reduced.

"Our kids have enough stress because they're forever taking tests, which takes them away from the classroom," said Grubb, who volunteers at the high school's career center. "What's important for colleges is grade point average, the SAT, the Advanced Placement tests and extracurriculars."

To be sure, some parents worry that eliminating the twice-a-year Golden State Exams will limit the arenas in which students can show their talents. About 210,000 students took at least one of the exams last year, according to state figures.

"The point is, if students ace six of these tests, they get a diploma, which they can use as bragging rights," said Mallik Kesavaraju of South Pasadena, whose 12-year-old son, Anand, was supposed to take an algebra test in May. Kesavaraju believes that students need every advantage they can get when they apply to top-tier universities such as Harvard and UC Berkeley.

(Harvard officials said the university does not give much weight to regional or state exams. UC Berkeley officials said the tests were not "make-or-break pieces of data," though they would be interested in high scores. Many high schools do not post poor scores on transcripts.)

Diaz, the state official in charge of the tests, said the math and reading-writing portions are being preserved mainly to help the Cal State University system. Cal State officials said they are using this year's spring tests as a pre-screening tool for juniors. If the students don't pass the two tests, they can take remedial classes before they enter Cal State. If they pass, they can be exempted from the system's own placement tests.

Lynn Winters, assistant superintendent of research, planning and evaluation at the Long Beach Unified School District, said that school officials don't see a major loss because the Golden State Exams did not change colleges' perception of a student's coursework.

The exams can earn students the state scholarship money only if they have high scores on mandated state assessment tests and if the school does not offer Advanced Placement tests.

Esther Wong, assistant superintendent of planning, assessment and research in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that the number of Golden State tests taken last year totaled 63,732, about 10,000 fewer than the year before in Los Angeles. She ascribed the drop to the increase in other state tests, such as the high school exit exam and the Advanced Placement tests.

"They all occur at about the same time," she said, and students have to set priorities.

Dayton Gilleland, who oversees high school education at Fontana Unified School District, also said that the number of students taking the Golden State Exams has dropped recently, although Fontana High, with 800 test takers last year, had the most participants of any school in the state. He hopes a full set of Golden State Exams returns in the future.

Most students shrugged off the sudden lightening of their assessment load.

Melissa Sato, a junior at South Pasadena High School, had signed up this spring for two canceled tests (U.S. history and chemistry), and expects to take the writing and math portions.

"They're not that stressful compared to the SATs or the AP tests. There's no punishment if you don't do well," she said.

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