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Graders 'Flagging' Writing Tests for Signs of Distress

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A writing test taken by students in the Torrance (Calif.) Unified School District recently yielded a surprising result.

Besides possessing varying degrees of writing proficiency, several students were judged by test readers to have an excessive knowledge of illicit drugs and referred to their school principals for counseling.

The Torrance Teachers Association, the California Teachers Association, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig all condemned the district's unannounced use of the writing test to gather information about student knowledge of drugs.

They said the action violated the trust of the students, who thought they were being tested only to measure their writing skills.

Torrance is not alone, however, in using a writing-proficiency test to determine if students need counseling for troubled personal lives.

Almost every state education department that has established a writing-proficiency test--including New York, Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas--has mechanisms in place to alert school districts if a student's essay contains clear-cut evidence of suicidal wishes, severe psychological problems, child abuse, or drug abuse.

"We are legally and morally obligated to," said Vana M. Dabney, supervisor of educational assessment for the South Carolina Department of Education.

"If we are reading a paper and feel that a child is on the verge of suicide or has written about a serious child-abuse problem, then we would be le4gally guilty not to report that back to the district," Ms. Dabney said.

Nevertheless, the practice offends some teachers, who contend that it violates student trust, and many privacy-rights advocates, who see it as intrusion of the state into private lives.

"It's a frightening development," said Robert L. Hamm, director of affiliate and member services for the National Council of Teachers of English.

"A paper is intended to be a sacred communication between the teacher and the student," Mr. Hamm said. "You can't help but applaud the schools for trying to combat a problem. On the other hand, you make kids dishonest in their writing because they don't want to implicate themselves."

"A fundamental part of the right to privacy is that information that is gathered for one purpose ought not to be used for another purpose unless you get the consent of the individual," said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal.

"If [the information] is used in a benign way, that is one thing," Mr. Smith said. "But I don't know how you guarantee that."

According to Janlori Goldman, a privacy-law expert for the American Civil Liberties Union, "students should know that information that they divulge on these essays may be looked at by counselors."

Testing officials in all of the states cited said that their writing-proficiency tests do not deliberately try to solicit cries for help from students; that only a handful of the thousands of tests taken each year are marked with alerts; and that they make every effort to keep the results of the alerting process confidential.

But the officials also said they leave it up to the local school districts to respond to the tests that are8marked and know little or nothing about how the districts handle those students. Most said the districts tell them they were already aware that the children were experiencing personal problems.

In several states, education departments began placing alert notices on writing-proficiency tests only after blatant student cries for help were encountered in the first year the tests were administered.

Typical is the experience of South Carolina, where Ms. Dabney said scorers of the first tests given to 6th and 8th graders in 1982 "would come up and say, 'Hey, we are reading this paper, and the child sounds really serious about suicide."'

The states, most of which have implemented writing tests within the past seven years, vary significantly in the degree to which they look for signs students may be troubled.

Henry H. Scherich, president of Measurement Inc. of Durham, N.C.--which evaluates writing tests for Connecticut, Maryland, Louisiana, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Texas--said his company's test readers typically have no counseling background and are asked by the states only to look for "very basic" references to suicide, child abuse, or drug abuse that "you or I or anyone would think are serious."

"We do not ask them to read between the lines," Mr. Scherich said.

Massachusetts, on the other hand, each year marks about 35 essays that contain "anything that might disturb an adult reader," said Brenda B. Thomas, education specialist for the state department of education.

"It can run the gamut from inferential, or the suggestion that something can be wrong, to actual cries for help," Ms. Thomas said.

One year, she said, children were asked to describe a place where they would like to go. When a child responded that he would like to go inside a burned-out building, the state notified his district so that counselors could tell the child that going inside such buildings is dangerous.

Mr. Scherich said that, along with references to child abuse, drug abuse, and severe psychological problems, the Texas Education Agency has specifically asked his company "to flag tests where a student is involved in something unlawful."

After Keith L. Cruse, director of Texas' division of student assessment, denied making such a request, Mr. Scherich contacted Education Week to say that he had misspoken. Mr. Scherich said his graders take points away from Texas students who inappropriately mention unlawful acts in their essays, but the graders do not flag Texas tests any differently than others.

Mr. Cruse said he recalled seeing a reference to "legal action" on one of the tests Measurement Inc. returned to his state.

The Torrance Unified School District's writing test went beyond those of the states in that it asked students questions that seemed intended to elicit indications of a drug-counseling need.

Fifth graders there were asked to write an essay giving advice to students who were offered pills, 8th graders were asked to write a letter to a friend who was having trouble break4ing a marijuana habit, and high-school students were asked to describe their feelings about a friend's involvement with alcohol or drugs.

Torrance school officials failed to return repeated phone calls last week asking them about the test.

Mr. Honig, the state superintendent, said the students should have been told that the tests would be used for other purposes.

"I think there is a trust," Mr. Honig said. "If you want them to write something and not be censoring their own thoughts, you should tell them the ground rules."

So far, most state test-flagging programs have escaped the kind of criticism given to the Torrance Unified district.

State education officials say their flagging policies, many of which conform to state laws requiring the reporting of child abuse, are accepted because they help the few students they affect.

However, Mr. Smith of the Privacy Journal said many parents may not have been aware such practices were taking place in their state because they assumed, incorrectly, that the practices would be prohibited by federal law.

The so-called "Hatch Amendment" of 1978--named for its sponsor, Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah--barred schools from using federal funds to conduct certain psychological tests of students without parental consent.

LeRoy S. Rooker, director of the family-policy and regulations office of the U.S. Education Department, said the state writing-proficiency test programs would not be found in violation of the Hatch Amendment, even if they were federally funded, if the questions they asked were not designed to elicit responses revealing information about a student's private life.

Mr. Rooker said he did not know of any states that had adopted laws similar to the Hatch Amendment.

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