Los Angeles Times

Sunday, March 22, 1998

Schools Defy State, Allow Exemptions on New Test
Education: Some districts let limited- English-speaking students skip standardized exam, threatening to throw off scores statewide. California officials threaten legal action.
By TINA NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer

Arguing that California's new standardized exam might give unfairly low scores to students with limited English skills--and their school districts--schools from San Francisco to San Diego are finding ways to avoid testing those students.
     The rebellion against the much-ballyhooed renewal of state testing, which began last week in some districts, threatens to throw off scores statewide and invalidate district-to-district comparisons.
     Blatantly defying state laws, San Francisco public schools are exempting their 8,000 limited-English students from the test unless the children's parents or teachers explicitly request that they take it. The Los Angeles Unified School District has started sending waiver forms to parents that would enable their children to avoid the test, and some community groups have begun a campaign to get as many as possible to sign the forms.
     Meanwhile, officials in San Diego and south Orange County say they will advise students who speak limited English not to fill out the test if they don't fully understand it.
     "I'm telling the teachers to say to the students, 'If you cannot read the test, don't guess,' " said Jeff Bristow, testing director in Capistrano Unified. " 'Just turn it over and go on and read silently.' "
State education officials warned that districts could face legal action if they circumvent the testing, which was pushed by Gov. Pete Wilson.      "We've got to make the commitment to test all students and quit fudging around the edges," said Dan Edwards, a spokesman for Wilson. "It's the students who were denied the test who will be undermined. They will not have individual test scores to shed some light on how they are doing."
     At issue is the state's requirement that virtually all students in grades two through 11 take the exam in English, whether they are fluent in the language or not. Exceptions are made only for some special education students and parents who sign waivers--under a provision in the state education code--exempting their children from taking a standardized test.
     The Stanford Achievement Test, Ninth Edition, published by Texas-based Harcourt Brace, is California's first attempt to impose standardized statewide testing since the California Assessment Test (CLAS) was killed in 1994, partly because it did not give scores for individual students.
     Wilson has made the Stanford Nine--which tests reading and math skills--a hallmark of his education program. It will yield scores for individual students, schools and districts. But it also marks the first time such tests will be administered to students who are not fluent in English.
     Opponents of that move contend that the test will unfairly make those students look like failures. A student might be a wizard at math, they say, but get a poor score in that subject because the English on the test seems incomprehensible.
     "The state is spending $30 million . . . to find out non-English-speaking students do not do well on English tests," complained Bob Raines, testing program manager at the San Diego City School District, where about 25% of the students speak limited English.
     The San Francisco school board made the strongest statement, voting Tuesday not to test limited-English speakers. "It's not that we're anti-accountability," said Supt. Bill Rojas. "We're purely anti doing it incorrectly."
     The exam's publisher, Harcourt Brace, said it has never encountered a problem like this in the eight other states that use the test.
     The rebellion among schools threatens to skew district-by-district comparisons, because a district that abides by the rules and administers the test to all students--including those with poor English skills--stands to rank lower than one that has only fluent English students take the test.
     Such standardized tests can take on considerable significance as school and district scores are published and ranked against each other. They can even affect the real estate market, with prospective home-buyers looking for the schools with the highest scores.
     Some school officials, such as Billie Jean Knight, testing coordinator for the San Marino Unified School District, are irked that other districts are trying to avoid testing all their students. San Marino is typically among the highest-achieving districts in the state and has a relatively low 8% of students with limited-English skills.
     "Everyone has their own interpretation of the law," Knight said. "Now, is that standardized?"
     The critics contend that the Wilson administration is using the English-only test as a ploy to malign the public education system, particularly bilingual education, and perhaps justify setting up a voucher system.
     "It's an obvious attempt on part of the governor and his political circles to put in a bad light districts with a disproportionate number of limited-English proficient students," said Nativo Lopez, trustee in the Santa Ana schools, where 70% of students speak limited English.           "It's obvious the test results of students of these schools will be lower and these students will wrongfully be punished."
     The Los Angeles school district made its move against the testing last week when Supt. Ruben Zacarias began sending all parents notices about the Stanford Nine and attached waiver forms with the letters.
     The waiver process--empowering parents to keep their children out of standardized tests--was created by the state after religious groups complained that the California Assessment Test denigrated family values and argued that all children should not be forced to take them.
     This time, it is groups such as the Mexican American Education Commission that--at the urging of school trustees in Los Angeles--are encouraging parents to exercise the right and abandon the Stanford Nine. The role of parent and community groups is crucial because state law forbids school officials from directly soliciting parents to submit waiver requests.
     "The steps we've taken are well within the laws," said L.A. Unified board Vice President Vicki Castro.
     Los Angeles activist Antonio Legaspi--a member of a group called the Parent Community Service Unit--says he has talked to nearly 300 parents at workshops over the past few weeks on the "consequence" of the Stanford Nine and how "our limited-English students are not ready" to take the test.
     In the Oxnard Elementary School District, about 100 parents have launched a Spanish-language media campaign telling parents to refuse the Stanford Nine if their children struggle with English.
     "Parents need to know they have that option," organizer Esther Lara told the school board in that Ventura County district, where 12% of the students speak minimal English.
     The Stanford Nine exam was developed by testing a sample of students nationwide, less than 2% of whom were identified as limited-English speakers. In California, about a fourth of public school students speak minimal English.
     A bill introduced in the state Assembly last month (AB 1815) would exempt English learners from the test, though it would require them to take a test in their primary language.
     Stanford Nine results will be released by the end of June.
Times staff writer Fred Alvarez contributed to this story.