Wednesday, April 08, 2009, 4/08/2009 05:19:00 PM

Are Standardized Tests Trade Secrets of the School District? So Argues Cincinnati

By Todd

If a group of Cincinnati school teachers prevails in a case now before the Ohio Supreme Court, enterprising students might be able to ace their tests simply by using the state's public-records law to get a copy of the test before it's given.

So contends the Cincinnati Public Schools, which is fighting the teachers' demands for copies of semester exams given to ninth graders.

The science teacher who brought the case, Paul Perrea, contends that the semester exams -- which account for 25 percent of a student's grade -- might have been poorly designed and might not reflect a student's actual learning.

Without getting a copy of the test, however, it's impossible to be sure, Perrea argues.
The school district responds that if standardized tests are declared public records, it would be open season for students and their parents to invoke the state's open-records laws to get their hands on tests they have not yet taken.

The two sides squared off at the Ohio Supreme Court today, where justices were unusually hostile toward Perrea's side.

At one point, Justice Terrence O'Donnell flatly rebuked Perrea's lawyer, Ted L. Wills: "You are wrong."

Wills pointed to the Supreme Court's 1998 ruling that statewide 12th-grade proficiency tests and vocational competency tests are public records. He also said that because thousands of students and hundreds of teachers already had seen the Cincinnati semester exams, the school district had forfeited its claim that the tests were trade secrets. Moreover, some of the answers appeared on the Cincinnati Public Schools' Intranet site, where students could access the information on school computers, Wills said.

Ohio's public records law requires school districts and other units of government to release records that document the functions of the public office. The law does not specifically exempt school tests. The Cincinnati schools are citing the exemption for trade secrets.

"I would say that test development is part of the operations of public schools," Wills told the court. "This is the final and quintessential goal of education."

Declaring the tests public records won't allow students to cheat, Wills said outside court. Wills said he's asking only for tests that already have been administered, not upcoming exams, and only district-wide tests rather than ones devised by individual teachers.

The Cincinnati Public Schools' lawyer, Mark Stepaniak, said the 1998 ruling on 12th- grade proficiency tests applied to tests required under state law, rather than those administered by one school district. He said the Cincinnati semester exam contains trade secrets.

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