Education Letter to the Editor


January 30, 2002 8 min read
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ESEA Testing Intent and Normed Exams

To the Editor:

Your article on state-by-state readiness for the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (“States Gear Up for New Federal Law,” Jan. 16, 2002) says that “the act requires statewide reading and mathematics tests each year in grades 3-8 by the 2005-06 school year. The tests must be “aligned with a state’s content and academic-achievement standards and provide information about how well students are meeting those standards.”

The article further states that “some states are banking on their ability to use norm-referenced tests or district tests to fill in any gaps, as long as the tests are aligned with state standards.”

The question that needs to be addressed is: Who will decide whether the national norm-referenced tests are really aligned with state standards? I was in a Western state last week that uses a nationally normed test whose publisher says it is 80 percent to 90 percent aligned with that state’s standards. But teachers there, and even the state’s assessment director, say they believe the percentage is much lower.

The only direction that will maintain the integrity of the intent of properly aligned tests is that nationally normed tests cannot be used to meet the requirements of ESEA.

Ken O’Connor
Ontario, Canada

The writer is a former curriculum coordinator and the author of How to Grade for Learning.

Leaving Students’ Privacy Behind?

To the Editor:

The mood was lighthearted late last year as the U.S. Supreme Court considered the issue of privacy for schoolchildren (“Grading Case Takes High Court Back to School,” Dec. 5, 2001). Justices joked about their own school memories of gold stars on good papers and reprimands for bad behavior.

Plaintiffs in the case they were hearing had brought suit under the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which states that no school receiving federal funds may “release education records ... without the written consent of ... parents.”

The Oklahoma mother who sued the Owasso school district over the practice of having students grade one another’s papers and then call out the grades for the teacher claimed this practice embarrassed her children and violated their privacy. An appellate court agreed, creating chaos for educators. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the district’s appeal on Nov. 27, 2001; a decision is due in the spring.

Though the justices are limited to the one issue posed—can children exchange and grade classwork?—the case may be the opening move in a bigger battle over privacy rights. The new federal education bill creates and computerizes vast amounts of education records.

There is no enunciated right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution, but in a 1965 case involving reproductive rights, the Supreme Court held that “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights ... create zones of privacy.” The court also held, in a 1969 decision about symbolic speech, that students “do not shed their constitutional rights ... at the schoolhouse gate.”

The family education rights legislation, dealing with student records in 1974, was named as a privacy act. The legislative history suggests that Congress was concerned with protecting the privacy of final, institutional school records of significance, not the day-to-day classroom work. But advances in technology make that distinction less precise and put student privacy at greater risk.

Today’s school districts spend precious time and resources entering, managing, and retrieving data. My district subscribes to a data-management system, as required by the state, and has several staff members whose sole responsibility is to manage this system and student data. Classroom records rapidly become institutional records.

Each 10-week quarter, teachers calculate a final grade for students, based on day-to-day activities. Those are entered into the databanks, along with attendance, proficiency-test scores, and other information. In high school, the recorded data also include students’ cumulative grade point averages and class ranks, all based on the quarter grades.

The “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 mandates yearly testing for every student in grades 3-8, with those scores also entered into the databanks and sorted by ethnicity, gender, and income. Wall Street giant Standard & Poor’s is one of many companies positioning themselves to analyze such data (“Standard & Poor’s Puts Michigan Data Under Microscope,” Jan. 9, 2002).

The data are to be primarily accessible to school personnel. U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige told Education Week last July that he wants all states to develop systems that track student-achievement data more carefully, so that decisions about instruction, dropouts, and other matters can be made using better evidence (“Paige Asserts He’ll Smooth Early Bumps,” July 11, 2001).

Student records, collected in data-storage systems, may become potent evidence. But will it be accurate, credible, and relevant? Federal law requires that no education records be released without parents’ written consent. How will parents control computerized data? Overworked teachers and counselors may not be able to “track student- achievement data” and design individual programs for students. So who will access it, and for what purpose? Government agencies? Companies selling “data warehousing”? Telemarketers?

I submit that creating computerized databanks of all our schoolchildren’s personal records poses a monumental risk to their privacy. Congress intended to protect children’s education records with the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act; I suspect the new federal education bill may violate that intent. In fact, many ordinary school activities already release education records without parents’ written consent.

Students are named to honor rolls and given honors diplomas; they are assigned to remedial programs or required to repeat a grade. Is that lawful under the federal privacy law? How will the new education bill reconcile family rights with school accountability? What privacy safeguards are provided and who will enforce them? As ever more data are created and computerized, our children’s privacy will surely be left behind.

Betty Raskoff Kazmin
Retired Los Angeles Teacher
Board of Education Member
Willard, Ohio

‘Full Funding': Doubly Defined

To the Editor:

Generally as well as professionally, ignorance is preferable to error, particularly when the error is based on material that is in the public domain and available not only to the general public but to the practicing professional as well. I refer to your article “ESEA Passage Awaits a Deal on Spending,” (Dec. 12, 2001). In it, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said that a defeated provision on special education funding represented the best chance for Congress to “fully fund” its share of special education costs.

The problem developed when you went on to define “full funding” as “federal payment of the additional cost of educating a special education student under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s mandates. That added cost is pegged at 40 percent of the cost of educating a student without a disability.”

But an article in your May 16, 2001, issue, “IDEA Funding Plan Draws Fire in Washington and Beyond,” gives “full funding” a far different meaning. In that article, you write that “full funding” for students with disabilities is often referred to as 40 percent of the average per-student cost (emphasis supplied).

The difference can be illustrated as follows. Hypothesize average per-student cost as $8,000, 40 percent of which would be $3,200 (to be paid by the federal government). In the initial instance, 40 percent of a hypothetical $10,000 (the cost of educating a special education child) would be $4,000. While the figure used is not precise, it is certain that 40 percent of the average additional cost for the disabled would be more or less than the $8,000, according to what figures are used. In Washington, for instance, in some cases the cost is high. Because of the reliance on private schools, one student’s cost might be $50,000 per annum.

In any event, whatever is “full funding” will determine the federal government’s costs. You have confused the issue by using two ways of determining full funding, and a mea culpa to your readership is in order.

Melville J. Appell
Retired Researcher for the
Federal Government
Reston, Va.

Editor’s Note: Mea culpa. The definition of “full funding” in the May 16, 2001, article was correct, while the Dec. 12, 2001, definition was not. The law says that the most a state may receive in grants under this provision is the number that results from multiplying the eligible number of children receiving special education services in a state times “40 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure in public elementary and secondary schools in the United States.”

Suggested Reading on Eden Alternative

To the Editor:

Your feature article “Generation Connection” (Jan. 16, 2002) painted an unusually complete picture of the pros and cons of involving children in the Eden Alternative, where young and old have an opportunity to learn from and revel in each other. The benefits to children and to elders cannot be overstated; and, as you explained, the possible drawbacks, while important to consider, can be overcome by taking the proper preventive steps.

Two books written by Dr. William Thomas, the founder of the Eden Alternative, may be of interest to your readers who want to learn more about this subject: Life Worth Living, which provides the rationale and how-to steps for incorporating the approach, and Learning from Hannah, a story that honors and illuminates the role of elders as participants in our society.

Meredith Rutter
VanderWyk & Burnham
Acton, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as Letters


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