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A School System’s Secret Recipe

If k is divisible by 2, 3, and 15, which of the following is also divisible by these numbers?
(a) k + 5
(b) k + 15
(c) k + 20
(d) k + 30
(e) k + 45

The above is a sample SAT question (answer at the end of this post). You can view a new real SAT question everyday at the College Board Web site, or, for hours of testing fun in your very own home, you can buy the book 10 Real SATs.

What you can’t do is view questions from the Cincinnati public schools’ district-wide exams. The exam questions, which have been seen by thousands of students, are trade secrets, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled last Thursday.

The Cincinnati Public Schools decided in 2006 to institute a testing program that would apply a single standard to students across the 34,000-student district. The district hired WestEd, a nonprofit testing agency, to design end-of-semester exams for ninth-, tenth-, and eleventh-grade students in English, math, science and history. But the school system only paid for a single set of questions for each exam, and so, year after year, Cincinnati public school students answer the exact same questions.

Paul Perrea, a teacher in the district, decided that someone ought to make sure the exams actually are worthwhile. He requested under Ohio’s public records law to see copies of the tests so that they could be evaluated by an independent, qualified psychometrician for “fairness, accuracy, and validity.” The school district said no. If the questions are released, the schools argued, the test will no longer have any value.

The dispute made its way to the Ohio Supreme Court, with Perrea arguing that the tests are public records that must be available to the community, and the district arguing that, although the tests are public record, they need not be released because they qualify as trade secrets.

In certain domains, trade secrets are fine. I don’t need to know the recipe for Coca-Cola, but I need to know that a public school district is doing its job responsibly, especially if my children are enrolled in the district or if I work in it. The fact that Cincinnati only developed 40 to 45 multiple choice questions for each exam, rather than use a larger question bank, already calls the tests into question. Students certainly are capable of remembering a few questions each from an exam. By pooling their notes, they can compromise an entire exam for the next group to be tested. Has the Cincinnati school district, or the Ohio Supreme Court for that matter, ever heard of Facebook?

The court noted that exam questions are occasionally changed when they are found to be deficient. This probably is a rare event, given the secrecy and lack of professional review surrounding the tests. It seems from here that the Ohio courts are not protecting the school system from disclosure of its trade secrets; they are protecting the school system from its own mistakes.

Common standardized tests, like the SAT, AP, and New York Regents exams are released after use not only to give students a chance to familiarize themselves with the types of questions they might encounter, but also to allow the academic community to assess the validity and usefulness of these measures of performance.

The cost of administering a test includes the cost of ensuring that it is fair and accurate. If the district cannot afford to do that, then it should not have purchased the tests in the first place. A test that cannot be reviewed without being destroyed is fundamentally flawed. Public records laws are designed to bring official mistakes into the open. The Ohio court’s liberal definition of a “trade secret” does just the opposite.

Cincinnati students and their parents deserve better. Some phone calls to state legislators might be enough to get the law changed, so the school system’s testing can be put to the test.


Answer to sample SAT question: D.

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