San Francisco Examiner

Wednesday, February 25, 1998

Schools Challenge Wilson, Resist English-only Standardized Test
By JULIAN GUTHRIE of the Examiner Staff

Setting themselves up for a bitter and high-stakes showdown with the state, school superintendents from across California are challenging a law requiring them to administer a standardized test in English to students who lack English skills.

School chiefs representing more than 1 million students said Tuesday it was "illogical and illegal" to test children in English when they didn't speak the language. They are crafting legal opposition to Gov. Wilson's English-only testing program, which is scheduled to begin in mid-March.

"We have a good legal challenge to this," said San Francisco Superintendent Bill Rojas, who is prepared to refuse to administer the test.

Districts opposing the mandated test say it violates civil rights laws and unnecessarily embarrasses and traumatizes non-English-speaking kids. It's also feared that it would cause statewide scores, which will be posted this spring on the Internet, to plummet to a humiliating new nadir.

Statewide, one in four children lacks the basic English skills necessary to attend mainstream classes. In most districts, these students are either exempted from testing or evaluated in their primary language - if such an exam exists.

Last week, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced it would head to court rather than administer the test to non-English speakers. Superintendents from San Diego, Fresno, Sacramento, Oakland and Long Beach - as well as San Francisco and Los Angeles - are lobbying state lawmakers to allow test scores of non-English-speaking children to be tabulated separately.

Assemblywomen Kerry Mazzoni, D-Novato, and Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, have sponsored separate legislation that would require the state to categorize test scores by such things as gender, language skills and the type and size of the district.

However, these bills wouldn't become law until next January.

Possible penalty
If districts refuse to administer the test, they risk losing millions of dollars in funding, the state Board of Education said Tuesday.

"They're not getting any money unless they administer the test," said Bill Lucia, the board's executive director. "For Rojas and others to say, "Oh, we're not going to comply,' means they're setting themselves up for serious repercussions. This is not a trivial thing."

Lucia added: "What's incredible here is that you have a group of adults - who are supposed to be setting examples and teaching character - flouting the law and precluding kids from getting money."

Hearing this, Rojas bristled and said, "This kind of extortion and bribery is certainly not what a public education entity ought to be about. What right do they have to threaten us?"

The tension and bitter banter is bound to escalate, with neither side showing signs of backing down.

"I'm not prepared to give up on my kids because of someone's political motives," Rojas said.

"This test is law and will be enforced," said Dan Edwards, of Wilson's education office. "Yes, there will be districts where limited-English students don't test well, but at least parents will have a baseline indicator that will be comparable year to year."

Wilson fought hard to get the testing bill passed by the Legislature last fall. It requires that all students in second through 11th grades be tested in English. For students who have attended California schools for less than a year, districts must also - if possible - administer a test in the student's primary language.

80 languages in schools
Although there are more than 80 primary languages spoken in California's schools, the only standardized exam that exists in another language is in Spanish.

"I believe it's not an efficient use of state funds to test children in English when they don't speak or read in English," said Mazzoni, head of the Assembly's Education Committee. "What these superintendents are doing is sending a strong message to the governor. I'm hoping he'll take another look at the issue."

But if legal action and legislative efforts fail, Stanford education Professor Amado Padilla poses another idea.

"We should ask the governor to take an exam in Cantonese, and tell him the results will determine whether he will fulfill his term in office," Padilla said. "I don't think he'd feel too comfortable with that."