SACRAMENTO — Ninth-graders will file into gyms and classrooms around the state next Wednesday, No. 2 pencils in hand, to take the state’s new graduation test for the first time.
That much is certain.
What is completely uncertain — thanks to a political dispute at the state Capitol — is whether the test will count for them, or merely serve as practice.
Gov. Gray Davis’ proposal to make this month’s first voluntary administration of the test a practice exam stalled Thursday in the Senate amid partisan bickering.
Backers plan to try again Monday to win approval — just two days before the test.
“It really puts us in a bad situation,” said Don Cauthron, working on the test for the Kern High School District in Bakersfield.
His 30,000-student district tried to write a letter three times to parents to explain the high school test and ripped it up twice as lawmakers altered the bill over and over again.
“We’re in a position where we’re having to explain to parents why we don’t know the answers to their questions,” he said. “Truthfully, it makes us look really ridiculous.”
Davis’ 1999 law creating the test requires the class of 2004, today’s ninth-graders, to pass the new test to graduate. The law also allows freshmen to take the test voluntarily. If they do well enough, they don’t have to take it again.
However, Davis late last year proposed making this year’s test only a practice exam for them, meaning they would have to take it again next year, when all 10th-graders must take it.
Recent court cases on similar tests in Florida and Texas indicate it is best to have all students subject to such a high-stakes test take it at the same time, Davis education aides told lawmakers.
Then the state can argue, if it is sued, that a complete cross-section of students answered the same questions at the same point in their school career and was subject to the same passing grade,
Removing high-achieving ninth-graders from the pool of 10th-graders next year “would skew the validity of the test,” said Davis’ education secretary, Kerry Mazzoni.
The Assembly approved the bill 66-0 Thursday, with Democrats and Republicans voting for it.
But Senate Republicans refused, saying they did not want to weaken or delay a test they believe will show how well teachers are performing. The Senate vote was 20-12, short of the 27 votes needed.
A two-thirds vote would put the measure into effect immediately after the governor signed it.
“It’s quality control for the adults. It’s to determine if the adults in the education system are doing their job,” said Sen. Ross Johnson, R-Irvine.
Senate Democratic leader John Burton of San Francisco accused Republicans of trying to “stick it to the governor” by blocking the bill he wants.
“This has nothing to do with Governor Davis,” responded Minority Leader Jim Brulte of Rancho Cucamonga. “Republicans believe in more testing, not less.”
Mazzoni said after the vote that she will try to persuade Republicans to vote for the bill Monday.
“Time is short,” she said.
Many lawmakers are also concerned students might not be ready for the test, particularly the algebra questions. The Senate earlier had tried to postpone the entire test until the class of 2005, but the Assembly rejected that, at Davis’ urging.
The chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. John Vasconcellos, D-Santa Clara, said Davis has assured him that if March test results show students are not prepared, the governor would consider postponing the test at least a year.
In the meantime, the test goes on Wednesday, real or practice.
All of California’s roughly 900 high schools must offer the test, but no one knows how many of the 480,000 ninth-graders will take it.
Cauthron of Kern High School District said the final letter sent to his parents asked them to notify their schools by Monday if their freshmen would take the test.
“To expect kids to take it seriously without knowing if it’s going to count at all is really difficult for a freshman in high school,” he said.
At Oroville High School, 90 percent of the 300 freshman have signed up for the test, Principal Ed Loman said.
“We’re giving it one way or another,” he said. “It will be good practice and preparation for passing the high school exam.”
On the Net:
Read the bill, SB84 by Sen. Jack O’Connell, D-San Luis Obispo, at http://www.sen.ca.gov
Read more about the high school test at