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Ohio Private Schools Challenge Required Test

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For six weeks this fall, students in Richard Hawley's ancient-civilization class had to set aside Plato and Homer to study a more pressing philosophy: that of the Ohio 9th-grade proficiency test.

And last week, for the first time, Mr. Hawley's students at the University School, a private college-preparatory school outside Cleveland, sat down with No. 2 pencils to put their newly honed knowledge to the test.

But teachers, administrators, and students there--and at other private schools across the state--are determined not to repeat the exercise. In a lawsuit filed two weeks ago, the Ohio Association of Independent Schools claims the tests unfairly burden private schools. The challenge says the tests are intrusive, force unwarranted curriculum revisions, and take away the defining freedom of private schools.

"If we lose our independence, the quality of our programs is diminished," said John Raushenbush, the executive director of the association, which represents 30 independent schools in Ohio.

Option Lost

When Ohio adopted statewide proficiency tests in 1992, they were optional for private schools. But a law passed the following year--which took effect this fall--requires that nonpublic schools participate, and threatens to revoke their charters if they don't.

In 1994, the legislature passed a bill exempting private schools from the state's tests, which gauge students' skills in citizenship, mathematics, science, reading, and writing. But Gov. George V. Voinovich vetoed that bill.

Private schools "are awarding their students an Ohio high school diploma, and they should be able to demonstrate the same competencies," said Karin Rilleycq, the state education department's legal counsel.

Private school officials say they understand the state's interest in ensuring that all students receive a thorough education. "We simply argue that the state does not have the authority to dictate curriculum to nonpublic schools," Mr. Raushenbush said.

The tests do not coincide with the curriculum used by college-prep schools, and revising the curriculum would be a step backward, said Mr. Raushenbush, a former independent school headmaster. "For the most part, the material is taught in our schools one to three years earlier."

But even though the material is easier, "you can't just wing it," added Mr. Hawley, the headmaster of the University School, who also teaches 9th-grade history and 12th-grade Advanced Placement English. "It's a substance-based test, not an aptitude test."

Mr. Hawley added that teaching the classics "is something I have done and loved for years. To have to dumb it down to do more primitive things just seems so sad."

Mr. Raushenbush said his group did not want to file a lawsuit, but found every other avenue fruitless.

"The state charters our schools as college-preparatory schools because 99.4 percent of our students attend accredited, four-year colleges and universities every year," he said. "Our students are among the most rigorously tested students that can be found anywhere."

Mr. Raushenbush said his group offered to provide the state with the results of the private schools' own testing programs and to create norms for the tests that the state could use to determine passing and failing levels. When the group could not strike that deal, it turned to the U.S. District Court in Columbus for a temporary restraining order so the students would not have to take the tests.

The court ordered students in the group's member schools to take the tests last week along with 200,000 other private school students. The exams will be sealed and evaluated pending a decision. A trial will begin Dec. 13.

If the legal effort by the independent schools' group fails, officials of other private school groups say they may join the fight.

"Our whole mission is unique and biblically centered," said Claude E. Schindler Jr., the superintendent of the Dayton Christian Schools and a spokesman for the Association of Christian Schools International, which includes 153 schools in Ohio. "Forcing us into the state-modeled curriculum removes our distinction and the reason we exist."

A Legal History

While it is well established that states have the authority to regulate private schools, the regulations tend to be broad.

Courts have ruled against states several times for excessively regulating private schools.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with a Louisiana court of appeals that the state could not require private school students to pass a high school exit exam.

In 1976, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled the state's minimum standards for private schools were "so pervasive and all-encompassing that [compliance] would effectively eradicate the distinction between public and nonpublic education."

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