California Adopts Regressive Testing Program

K-12 Testing

Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) Program. (SB 376). It requires students to take a commercial multiple-choice, norm-referenced standardized test every year in grades 2 through 11. Legislators initially resisted this new testing program, citing the fact that the state's new academic content standards have not yet been approved. Wilson then held hostage $200 million earmarked for local districts until the legislature reconvened and approved his program.

The California Board of Education decided in December to adopt the Stanford-9 multiple-choice test. Education Secretary Delaine Easton had recommended the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) Terra Nova. However, she criticized both it and the other options she considered, including the Stanford-9, as "seriously flawed." She explained, "None of them has the rigor, nor the breadth and depth of content, that California needs." Since the CTBS tests now are used in 80 percent of California's districts, most districts will have to change tests.

Superintendents' Challenge

A coalition of superintendents from most of the state's largest districts has formed to challenge the state's testing mandate. A "Call to Action" argues that the legislation "wastes taxpayer dollars and will impede, rather than support, our statewide push toward higher performance." The superintendents also maintain the testing program "is linguistically unsound and illegal," as it fails to meet requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The superintendents are looking toward both legislation and litigation to overturn the STAR program. Superintendents from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Oakland, Long Beach, Fresno, and Sacramento issued the statement.

The Testing Plan

The STAR test, by law, will measure student achievement in reading, spelling, written expression and mathematics. It is not yet known whether "written expression" will be tested by multiple-choice items or a writing sample. The exams are to produce individual, grade-level, school-level, district-level, county-level and statewide scores.

Special needs students will be exempted from STAR only if their individual education plans contain an explicit exclusion. Though the test will be entirely in English, students with Limited English Proficiency (LEP) must take it, even if they know no English. If they have been enrolled in a California public school for less than 12 months, they must also take an achievement test in their primary language, if such a test is available. If they have been enrolled more than 12 months, they may take such an achievement test in a second language, at the district's option. State law also allows parents or guardians to exempt their children from the STAR tests -- an option many families may choose.

The legislation also calls for the state to adopt tests in reading, writing, math, history/social science and science in grades 4/5, 8 and 10. These will include "direct writing" and "applied academic skills" as well as "basic academic skills." These tests may include open-ended, constructed-response as well as multiple- choice items.

The state is in the process of adopting content standards in a variety of subjects. The new law specifies that the purpose of the standards is to guide test development and adoption. The law also requires the education department to provide districts "with guidelines for professional development that are designed to assist classroom teachers to use the results... to modify instruction for the purpose of improving pupil learning."

Thus, the tests clearly are intended to define and control curriculum and instruction, even though the first year's STAR exams will not be based on state standards. The superintendents' "Call to Action" argued that the state should just implement exams based on the standards. The state expects Harcourt Brace, maker of the Stanford-9, to modify the test to bring it closer to the standards in future years, while maintaining continuity of test score interpretation. This task may meet with failure as equating changed assessments is fraught with many technical problems.

Resistance Needed

STAR runs directly counter to the Principles and Indicators of the National Forum on Assessment, which calls for minimizing the use of norm-referenced tests and multiple-choice items. Large numbers of special needs and limited English proficient students will be tested with completely inappropriate instruments that will produce invalid scores, even though the new California law calls for using valid tests. While there are no explicit sanctions attached to test scores, the publication of results will inevitably increase the pressure to tailor teaching to these very narrow instruments.

The STAR program will undermine education reforms needed by California's children, particularly low- income students, children of color, recent immigrants, and students with special needs. Until pressure builds to change to a more reasonable state assessment program, the only avenues of resistance are for parents to exempt their children from these educationally destructive tests and for educators to fight locally to maintain high quality educational practices.

-- A more detailed FairTest critique of California's testing program is in Thrust for Educational Leadership, January 1998. (ACSA, 1575 Bayshore Blvd., Burlinghame, CA 94010; $8.00.)