Suit Argues Essay Questions on Test In Ind. Are ‘Psychologically Intrusive’

By Adrienne D. Coles — November 08, 1995 3 min read

Opponents of Indiana’s state-wide testing program have gone to court to block the use of essay questions that they say are too personal.

In a continuation of a longstanding battle over the content and direction of statewide testing of students, opponents last month presented evidence to a state judge arguing that 27 questions from the Indiana Statewide Testing for Educational Progress program are “psychologically intrusive.”

Last spring, the legislature approved short-answer and essay questions for the test, which has traditionally included only multiple-choice questions. The compromise was struck after backers of an open-ended statewide test could not gather enough votes to pass it. (See Education Week, April 12, 1995.)

But the compromise version has not answered everyone’s fears.

Four state lawmakers and two parent-led groups are seeking an injunction to block the use of the essay portion of the revised exam. The test is scheduled to be given to more than 200,000 of the state’s 3rd, 6th, and 10th graders next March.

After hearing the criticisms of an education consultant and a clinical psychologist last week, Marion Superior Court Judge Patrick L. McCarty scheduled a hearing for Nov. 21.

Personal narratives and letters that are a part of the test ask for personal information, according to the lawsuit.

Critics Fear Intrusion

“The tests were seeking attitudes, not academics,” said John R. Price, the lawyer representing the legislators and the parent organizations. “There were ‘politically correct’ questions as well.”

Rep. David L. Lohr, one of the lawmakers bringing the suit said they don’t object to essay questions--just the types of questions that are being asked. The test asked students to describe themselves and explain their position on issues like feminism or the environment, according to Mr. Price.

Kevin McDowell, the chief counsel for the state education department, said the questions and the format were approved by the state’s Testing Issues Study Committee as well as a 14-member ad hoc committee that included business leaders and other people outside of education.

“This suit began as an access-to-public-records case--not a referendum on federal or state conspiracies,” Mr. McDowell added.

The case stemmed from a refusal by the education department to turn over certain documents requested by Ramona Mays of Michigantown, a parent and the founder of Taxpayers Involved in Education.

“Kids’ test scores are going down, and, to me, this is not the way to pull them up,” said Ms. Mays, whose group is one of the organizations involved in the suit.

Opponents also claim that, during the pilot testing last month, the company scoring the test returned several student papers to the education department because they contained responses that indicated “veiled or explicit” signs of abuse. The critics allege that those papers were then turned over to local school administrators for follow-up action.

“This sets wheels in motion that are scary. If your kid answers a test question, the next thing you know, you may have social services knocking on your door,” said Ms. Mays. “How can a scorer decide?”

Mr. McDowell emphasized that while the papers are part of the proposed testing contract, they are not a part of the regular testing.

“The essay questions should just stick to the academics,” said Ms. Mays, who is now teaching her three children at home.

A motion to dismiss the case is still pending, according to Mr. McDowell. “We’re hopeful the judge will see this is a public-policy issue that is inappropriate for the court. This is not the right forum.”

In the meantime, the education department is moving forward with its plans to administer the new statewide assessment.

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 1995 edition of Education Week as Suit Argues Essay Questions on Test In Ind. Are ‘Psychologically Intrusive’