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

Michael W. Kirst
Stanford University
Christopher Mazzeo
Education Northwest


Questions about the feasibility of and political support for new forms of pupil assessment have become major issues. With the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS), California became a pio­neer in these new forms of assessment. For a variety of reasons however, parents, con­servative religious groups, the California School Boards Association, the Califor­nia Teachers Association, and the governor all raised objections to the as­sessment during its 1993 implementation. As a result of this dissent, CLAS is now discontinued, but many questions re­main. Answers to them can shed light both on the future of assessment policy in Cali­fornia and, 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?

The CLAS case illustrates some of the difficulties involved in large-scale trans­formation of state assessment systems. For advocates of performance-based testing, the case stands as an exemplar of the difficulties of moving policy toward more "authentic" forms of assessment and away from the measurement of basic skills through mul­tiple-choice exams. While factors unique to California (e.g., election-year politics) can partially explain the fate of CLAS, 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 needs that the previous testing program had not met. 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 stan­dards and assessment; and (3) to provide assessment of individual student perform­ance as well as data on schools and dis­tricts. The test was intended to create com­ parable scores for all parts of the state's education system. The performance of these discrete parts of the education system would be measured through both on-demand as­ assessments given once a year and portfo­lios that would keep track of student work over a longer period of time.

This article was originally published in The Phi Delta Kappan by Phi Delta Kappa International and Journal Storage (JSTOR).

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