Secrecy and Civil Disobedience

K-12 Testing

The January-February 1999 issue of the dissident Chicago teachers' newspaper Substance published the entire text of five of the city's new high school Chicago Academic Standards Examinations (CASE). For revealing pilot tests in U.S. history, algebra, world studies and two English 1 exams, Substance editor George Schmidt has been suspended without pay from his teaching position. The Chicago School Reform Board has sued Substance and Schmidt for $1 million, supposedly the cost to re-do the tests.


On January 26, the Board obtained a temporary restraining order (TRO) prohibiting further distribution of Substance and authorizing the Board to seize all copies of the paper. In its application for the TRO, the Board claimed, "The Newspaper and other materials already disseminated must be confiscated, even if it takes the U.S. Marshals going to every Chicago Public School teacher's home." Days later, Substance succeeded in having the TRO lifted.


The School Board suit alleges copyright violations and theft of trade secrets. On April 2, Schmidt countersued for $1 million, maintaining that in firing and suing him, the city violated his First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and the press, as well as his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.


Test Secrecy

"The purpose of the attack," explained Schmidt, "was to stop people from discussing what was in those black boxes we had just forced 100,000 kids to spend time inside. It worked. For two months, most people here (and elsewhere) stopped discussing the content of those dumb tests out of fear they, too, would be sued for $1 million."


Besides the questions of legality, there are important issues of test secrecy. The most fundamental involves secrecy for students: is it really fair to play "gotcha" with students, to hold them responsible for learning without telling them what it is they are expected to learn? Grant Wiggins, in Assessing Student Performance, has addressed this issue most forcefully, arguing that secrecy is both unfair and ultimately undermines high quality teaching and learning.


A second issue is whether tests should be kept secret from students, parents and the public after they have been administered. In the 1970s, New York state passed "Truth-in-Testing" legislation which required makers of college admissions exams to provide test-takers with a copy of the exam with the wanted answers and the student's own responses. This process has exposed many flawed items and made the entire testing enterprise more open to public scrutiny.


In the past few years, litigation in both Ohio and Texas has forced those states to let parents review tests after administration. In both states, legislation has since codified those rights.


Meanwhile, a few states have begun to publish portions of their tests each year. New York has released its Regents exams for decades. (This practice, however, has turned many Regents courses into test coaching using old exams.) Massachusetts and Maine release about eighty percent of their items. As a result, many flawed items were revealed on the 1998 Massachusetts exams (see Examiner, Winter 1998-99). In some states, such as New Hampshire, parents and students over age 18 can view the tests, but other students and the general public cannot. In most states and districts, however, secrecy reigns.


While standards or curriculum may be the official description of what students should learn, the reality is that high-stakes tests are the real drivers of instruction. Test secrecy not only hides from students what they should learn, it also prevents parents and taxpayers from knowing what the state or district really expects of the children. If parents cannot examine the exams, they will not know directly whether the tests narrow and distort curriculum and instruction.


Chicago's Flawed Tests

The CASE exam questions disclosed by Substance include many very poor items (see examples in sidebar). If the city spent over a million dollars to produce these exams, as it's lawsuit alleges, the taxpayers should demand their money back.
CASE scores have been released to teachers, but they receive no other information about their students' performance. In the unlikely event the exams contained instructionally helpful information, that data itself remains secret.


Civil Disobedience?

Regardless of whether they infringed on copyright, the actions of Substance serve a greater good. The education of many of the nation's children is being decided in secrecy. This ought to be of far more concern than Chicago's "trade secrets."


FairTest's fall name includes a call for tests to be open. At a minimum, exams should be available for public inspection after they have been administered. Preferably, secrecy-driven forms of assessment that have long been inflicted on our children should stop.


-- Copies of the January-February 1999 issue of Substance are still available. Email to, or write to 5132 W. Berteau, Chicago, IL 60641. Your support for their battle is needed, please help.