How to Use the Freedom of Information Act

The Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) law, passed by Congress and signed by the President in 1966, gives members of the public the right to obtain certain government records. The law was written to contribute to an informed citizenry that they could better participate in democratic decision making. State have their own FOIA laws and regulations which pertain to state and often local government agencies.

A variety of information can be obtained through FOIA laws, including how agencies operate, how they are structured, how they make decisions and how they spend money. Here we are concerned that parents and others are able to easily obtain documents about issues pertaining to public education and the implementation of assessment/testing programs.

Depending on the state FOIA laws, some or all of the following may be public documents subject to FOIA requests, others may be “exempt” from disclosure. These may include: the state’s request for proposal for test creation and scoring and criteria for choosing the contracted company; test validity and reliability studies; test answer scoring procedures; cut-score or level setting procedures (such as how a failing score is determined); expenditures for certain tests or assessments overall; the type and cost of training provided for teachers to learn alternative assessment practices; the cost of rewards to high scoring schools; the cost of retaining students in grade an extra year; a breakdown in test scores by race, class, gender and socioeconomic class. In some states, the contract with the test manufacturer may also be a public document.

In order to use the FOIA, a letter detailing the information sought must be sent to the appropriate record keeping department. If you are not sure where to begin, consult your Secretary of State or state legislator’s office for guidance. It is important that the letter be addressed to the right agency and be as clear and specific as possible in describing the information wanted.

For a complete guide to the Federal FOIA, follow a link to the American Civil Liberties Union guide listed below.

The following sample letter written by a parent in Ohio provides a good example of the format and language that should be used:

City, State, Zip

Mr/Ms. _____,

I would like to request copies of the following information under the Freedom of Information Act and as a request as an Ohio Citizen. Could you and the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) please provide me with copies of any and all documents that discuss, evaluate or state the appropriate and validated uses or the inappropriate and invalidated uses of the data resulting from all of the Ohio Proficiency Tests (fourth grade, sixth grade & ninth grade). Examples of this type of information could be discussions and evaluations of using the 4th grade test to determine grade promotion or the appropriate use of the data to compare academic quality between school districts. I would also like to request copies of any documents stating or referring to test takers rights.

It is likely that some of the types of documents that may include this information are (but are not limited to):

1 )The initial request for bid/proposal documents that were submitted to test writers/contractors stating what the tests are to measure. In other terms, the scope of work and objectives for developing the tests.

2) Contractual documents where the test contractor put in disclaimers or other statements related to the appropriate and validated (inappropriate and invalidated) use of the test results and test takers rights.

3) Technical manuals written both externally and internally detailing the appropriate and valid (inappropriate and invalid) use of the test results and test takers rights.

4) Technical evaluation documents discussing and evaluating resultant data in terms of overall appropriate use of the data and validated uses of the data. These may be internal or external (outside contractor) documents.

5) Internal memos within the ODE or other State Offices discussing these subjects or letters to legislators or other politically important people discussing these subjects.

Pursuant to [you own local FOIA law], we request a waiver of any and all fees for searching for and copying materials that respond to this request. Disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest, will greatly benefit the general public and is not in the commercial interests of the undersigned or any other person.

It would be helpful if a time estimate could be given for submission of these documents to me. They are needed as soon as possible.

Please feel free to contact me anytime with questions. A hard copy of this request will follow this facsimile in the mail.

(A sample copy is available by clicking here)

Other tips:
It is possible that the agency will promptly release all of the information you are seeking. But it is more likely that there may be a delay in processing. An excessive delay in complying with a request constitutes what’s called a “denial in effect.” State laws vary, but some allow you to go straight to court if the agency does not produce the records you want within the proper time limit, but unless you have a pressing need for the data, you should send a letter of appeal first. It is always a good idea to keep complete records of your written and phone correspondence with all agencies.