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California school exams are imperiled

Mercury News 6/8/07

Misguided opponents of statewide education testing are waging guerrilla war, trying to shoot down tests for the youngest students while also taking aim at a familiar target, the high school exit exam. It will take Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to defend them.

What's most vulnerable are standardized reading and math tests for second-graders. Budget committees in the Legislature have stripped money for them.

The timing is bad. The recently released Getting Down to Facts, the extensive Stanford-led education study, stressed the need for statewide data to guide upcoming decisions on education reform. Soon the state will finally have in place a student identifier system that will track students' progress over time. It will be even more important to begin collecting data early, when students are acquiring basic skills.

We're sympathetic with teachers' complaints that the STAR tests, which form the basis for a schools ranking, are wearing on young, fidgety children, even when the five-hour tests are spread over more than a week. It's a particular strain on English learners who have to take yet another battery of tests.

But the value of the tests outweighs lost classroom time. The tests provide early indicators of which individual students are falling behind, which teachers may not be educating to state standards, and which schools are struggling. As it is, the results of the second-grade tests, given in May, aren't available until third grade. Throw the testing back a year, and problems may not be picked up until a child is in fourth grade. Crucial time for intervention will have been lost.

Schwarzenegger included $2.4 million for second-grade testing in his budget, and so will have to fight for it in negotiations with the legislative leaders. Restoring it should be a priority.

The governor may also have to beat back efforts, pushed by Democrats and backed by some civil rights groups, to weaken the high school exit exam. This week, the Assembly, on a party line vote, passed AB1379, which would force the state to develop alternative measurements for students who can't pass the test.

The exit exam tests 10th-grade English language skill and math knowledge through Algebra I. Students can take it six times and need to answer only 55 percent of questions right to pass. To award a diploma for anything less would constitute fraud.

Some states have adopted alternatives to a single test. But, whether in the form of portfolios or proof of attendance, they will take the pressure off students to learn basic skills and off schools, particularly those with large numbers of poor and immigrant students, to rigorously teach them.

In 2006, the first year in which passage was required, 91 percent of 404,000 seniors passed. Since then, 4,000 more have, while an additional 17,500 are plugging away in community college classes or as fifth-year seniors. Districts also are offering weekend and summer remediation classes.

In vetoing a similar bill two years ago, Schwarzenegger said, "We have a responsibility to each of our students to believe in them, and not to have low expectations." Nothing has changed since to cause him to change his mind.