Torrance School Board Moves to Ban Hidden Uses of Student Tests

Times Staff Writer

The Torrance school board has tentatively approved a new policy that would require administrators to notify teachers and students of all uses of students' tests.

The policy, which was unanimously supported Monday night, grew out of accusations by teachers and union representatives that administrators violated students' privacy last year by using writing tests to identify students for drug counseling.

The state-mandated writing tests, which were given in February to fifth-, eighth- and ninth-graders in the Torrance Unified School District, were reviewed by school psychologists, counselors and administrators to determine the depth of students' knowledge about drugs.

The tests asked fifth-graders to write an essay giving advice to a friend who had been offered drugs. Eighth-graders were asked to write a letter to a friend who was having trouble breaking a marijuana habit. And ninth-graders were asked to describe their feelings about a friend's use of alcohol or drugs.

No Warning

Neither teachers nor students were warned that the tests would be reviewed for anything other than writing proficiency, a spokesman for the teachers' union said.

Fewer than 50 of 2,000 tests were sent to school principals with a yellow mark to indicate that the students apparently had excessive knowledge about drugs, Assistant Supt. Gail Wickstrom said in June.

The proposed policy, which is scheduled for final consideration at a board meeting Sept. 5, would also require that administrators and teachers guarantee anonymity to students when it is promised on a test.

The question of anonymity arose in April after a number of students at West High School staged a protest by intentionally flunking a state-mandated assessment test. Although the students had been told the results would be anonymous, administrators later said it was possible for them to identify those who had unusually low scores.

Although the use of the writing test to determine drug knowledge was harshly criticized by educators--including state School Supt. Bill Honig--board member David Sargent defended the district, saying administrators had good intentions and were only trying to determine what changes were needed in the district's drug education program.

No Error, He Says

During a break at Monday night's school board meeting, Sargent said he believed the district did not err in reviewing the test for drug knowledge.

He said administrators' actions were misperceived by teachers and the public as dishonest. "In that sense, yes it was a mistake," he said.

During the meeting, board Vice President Owen Griffith spoke in favor of the proposed policy, saying: "I think that this is a step in the right direction."

Bill Franchini, director of the Torrance Teachers Assn., who has denounced the district for its use of the tests, also spoke in support of the policy. "It is exactly what will meet the concerns of the people," he said.

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