IT WAS a simple request.
In the spring of 1994, Maureen O'Connell of Falmouth asked to see the standardized test her son's fourth-grade class had just taken. Like most states, Massachusetts "assesses" its public school students in the fourth, eighth, and 10th grades every two years, testing them in reading, math, science and social studies. As a parent, a taxpayer and a member of the Falmouth School Committee, O'Connell felt she ought to know something about these tests, known as the Massachusetts Educational Assessment Program, or MEAP. She assumed that school officials would be glad to provide copies for her to look at.
She assumed wrong.
The MEAP tests are "confidential," Peter Clark, Falmouth's deputy superintendent, told her. "They belong to the state." O'Connell pointed out that as an elected official, she had earned a certain measure of state authority. But Clark was adamant: The tests were off-limits.
That fall the MEAP scores were released. They were dreadful, even worse than the 1992 results, despite the much-ballyhooed Education Reform Act that had taken effect in 1993. O'Connell's curiosity about the "assessments" mounted.
She studied the new education law -- one of many copycat statutes passed nationwide, all aligned with the federal "Goals 2000" program. She learned that if a district scored poorly enough on the MEAP, the state could take over its schools. She puzzled over the law's mandate that every student be assigned "a unique and confidential identification number," with information on each student gathered in permanent files. When she saw the US government's 300-page "handbook" of data to be compiled on every child in America, she grew uneasy.
It struck O'Connell as odd that while the Department of Education claimed that MEAP scores would not be calculated individually, every answer sheet was bar-coded. It also struck her as odd that there was not one version of the test for each grade but more than a dozen. And another thing: Why did the MEAP include personal questions? According to a summary of the test published by the Education Department, fourth-graders were quizzed on how frequently they talked about school at home and how well their parents spoke English. O'Connell wanted to know what else these kids were being asked -- and why the state didn't want her to find out.
When the 1996 MEAP season arrived, she approached Clark (who by now had become superintendent) and again asked to see the 1994 series. He refused but did allow her and another School Committee member to view specimens of the 1996 test. She was shown one sample each of the multiple-choice portion of the fourth-, eighth-, and 10th-grade tests. But she was not shown the essay questions; she could view the tests only in Clark's office; and she was forbidden to take notes.
Dissatisfied, O'Connell wrote to the Department of Education on March 20 requesting complete copies of the 1994 tests. She was sent the official summary, a kind of public relations brochure containing a few sample questions. On March 29, she wrote again, asking for the tests themselves -- and specifically invoking the Massachusetts freedom-of-information statute.
A month and a half elapsed. No answer. On May 15, O'Connell wrote to Secretary of State William Galvin, overseer of the state's records. She asked for a ruling on whether or not the 1994 MEAPs were public documents subject to a freedom-of-information request.
Not that there was much doubt about it. State law defines "public records" very broadly: "all materials or data . . . made or received by any officer or employee of any agency" of the state. Test questions were exempted only if they were part of "a licensing examination" -- e.g., medical boards or the bar exam. It should have taken Galvin all of five minutes to rule in O'Connell's favor.
It took more than three months.
To keep O'Connell from seeing the MEAPs, the Education Department went to astounding lengths. With no notice or public debate, Education Commissioner Robert Antonucci quietly arranged to have the freedom-of-information law altered. He got the Senate Ways and Means Committee to slip a rider deep inside a major budget bill. When the Legislature passed the bill in July, it unknowingly enacted a new freedom-of-information loophole -- one barring the public from access to any state "test, examination or assessment instrument." Brazenly, the department then argued that O'Connell's request to see the tests should be retroactively disqualified.
But the secretary of state did the right thing. On Aug. 20, he ruled that the 1994 MEAPs were indeed public. The Education Department was ordered to turn them over to O'Connell within 10 days or face enforcement by the attorney general.
Ten days passed. Twenty. On Sept. 13 O'Connell notified Galvin that she had not received the documents. On Oct. 3 she wrote again, asking that the attorney general enforce the law. The reply came a few days later: "Please be advised that this request is under consideration."
Two months later it's still "under consideration." So Maureen O'Connell waits. And wonders. Why the stone wall? Why the secrecy? What is it about this battery of two-year-old tests that the commonweath is so desperate to keep from parents' eyes?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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