The Rise, Fall, and Rise of State Assessment in California

Michael W. Kirst
Stanford University
Christopher Mazzeo
Education Northwest


The feasibility and political support for new forms of pupil assessment has become a major political issue. California was a pioneer through a system entitled "The California Learning Assessment System" (CLAS). For different reasons, conservative religious groups, parents, the California School Board Association, the California Teachers Association, and the Governor all raised objections to the assessment during its 1993 implementation. With CLAS now discontinued, many questions emerge. Answers to these can shed light not only on the future of assessment policy in California, but more generally on the politics of testing. What happened to CLAS? Why did it generate so much opposition? Why was CLAS not able to sustain the political coalition that created it? What are the future prospects for testing policy and the politics of testing.

What the CLAS case illustrates are some of the difficulties involved in wide­ scale transformation of state assessment systems. For advocates of performance-based testing, the California case stands as an exemplar of the difficulties in moving policy towards more "authentic" forms of assessment, and away from measuring basic skills through multiple choice. While factors unique to California (i.e., election year politics) can partially explain CLAS outcomes, other aspects of the case offer more general lessons for reformers about the politics of testing policy in the United States.

CLAS was developed in 1991 to replace its predecessor, the California Assessment Program (CAP). CLAS was designed to satisfy a number of different needs the previous testing program did not meet. Three goals of CLAS stand out: (1) to align California's testing system to the content of what was taught in schools—as represented in state curricular frameworks; (2) to better measure attainment of curricular content through performance-based standard setting and assessment; and (3) to provide individual student assessment of performance as well as data on schools and districts. The goal of the test was to create comparable scores for all parts of the state's educational system. The performance of these discrete parts of the educational system would be measured through both on-demand assessments given once a year, and portfolios that keep track of student work over a longer period of time.

Suggested citationKirst, M. W., & Mazzeo, C. (1996, July). The rise, fall, and rise of state assessment in California: 1993–96 [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.