Thursday, September 6, 2012

Knowledge Is Power

I have the distinction of having once, very early in my career, before I knew better, created a writing prompt that became the basis of a lawsuit. At the heart of the litigation was the question of how much privacy students may expect at school. What kinds of questions may students be required to answer?

The prompt was part of a mandatory writing assessment for a statewide testing program. I can't discuss the details of the prompt for two reasons: such discussion is not only prohibited by the non-disclosure agreement I signed as an employee of Great Big Huge Test Publishing Company, but is impossible due to the effects of the passing of time on my memory. I mean! Since 1993, I've written hundreds of writing prompts and thousands of test questions.

I do remember that the prompt had to do with the kinds of questions typically given candidates at job interviews, and then asked students to answer some kind of similar question, probably something like this:

During a job interview, candidates may be asked to discuss a difficult situation they handled successfully. Write an essay in which you describe an obstacle you have overcome or a difficult situation you handled successfully. You may write about real life or you may make up a situation for your essay.

That last line is important, isn't it. The point wasn't to gather personal information about students, but to give students a chance to demonstrate mastery in writing. No one cared what the content was, really; students could have written about learning to tie their shoes or training a puppy or choosing between different brands of sneakers. I don't know how the lawsuit turned out.

However, what happens when the purpose is to gather personal information about students in order to "get to know students better"? What happens when the questions are administered in two packets that total 33 pages for students to complete on their own, and the questions have to do with the most private of private personal and family matters? What happens when teachers are asking students--without having built a relationship with the students, without having observed any pathology, behavior disorder, or any other dysfunction in the students--whether they or any family members have ever been depressed, abused alcohol or other substances, relied on unhealthful strategies to cope with stress?

A lot of parents may not know this is happening at school. I do, because I look at every page of my daughters' schoolwork.

Some parents may not care--but I wonder how those parents would feel if a stranger walked up to them and asked them those same intrusive questions? (And others. I'm cherry-picking.)

I wonder how the teachers who are asking the questions would feel if the tables were turned, and someone in a position of authority were asking them questions that invaded their privacy?

Oh, wait. I already know how those teachers would react. It's all right here.

Parents should know (and schools should know, but clearly they do not) that if schools are going to gather personal information about students, the schools are required by law to first notify the parents to allow parents to exercise their right to opt out.

It is the parents' responsibility to know our rights and our children's rights, and to advocate for our children.

According to the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, schools must notify parents if they are going to ask about:

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