For years, it has been the policy of the state Department of Education to give school superintendents an advance peek at their district’s standardized test scores, a week or so before the high-stakes numbers are released to the public. And for roughly as long, transparency advocates have groused that such a policy seemed to put the public-relations concerns of insiders above the rights of the public to have prompt access to the government records they own.
But it took an enterprising reporter from the Journal Inquirer of Manchester to actually do something about it.
Last Aug. 19, a deputy commissioner at the education department sent an email to every superintendent in the state, announcing that aggregate district-wide data for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test would be made available to them later that day, but that the data was not to be shared with the press or discussed at a board of education meeting.
“As a courtesy, the embargoed results are made available for districts before results are made public,” the email stated. And breaking that embargo, the email warned, “jeopardizes your district’s access to future embargoed releases.”
Michael Savino, the J-I’s Capitol reporter, caught wind of the Aug. 19 email and immediately requested a copy of the district-by-district data the Department of Education had distributed to districts. The department declined, explaining that the data would be released to the public only after a “final quality control check” was completed.
“We set a high bar regarding accuracy of information that we generate and the public should expect nothing less from us,” a department official wrote in rejecting the request.
Nine days later, the data that had been released to the superintendents was released to the public. And two months after that, the press and the state squared off before a hearing officer with the Freedom of Information Commission to determine whether that nine-day delay was legal.
The department argued that an advance copy of the test data – including student-by-student results – is sent to local school districts so superintendents can notify the department of any anomalies that might indicate errors. The department’s chief performance officer testified that the participation of superintendents is an important part of the department’s verification process.
“In essence,” wrote Attorney Kathleen K. Ross, the hearing officer, “the [department officials] argued that the record containing the aggregate district-wide test results was a ‘preliminary draft’ at the time it was requested because such results had not been verified by the superintendents and the department.”
But Ross wasn’t buying it.
“The Commission does not credit the testimony of the [chief performance officer] regarding the superintendents’ role in verifying the test scores, in light of the conflicting evidence that the aggregate district-wide test results were sent to the superintendents ‘as a courtesy’,” Ross wrote in a proposed decision released last week. Moreover, she said, there was no evidence that the department had asked superintendents to verify the data and report any problems, and no evidence that any superintendents had in fact provided feedback on the results.
Beyond that challenge to the department’s testimony, Ross wrote that the data did not meet the legal definition of a preliminary draft, and that the department violated the Freedom of Information Act when it delayed releasing the data to Savino.
After Ross’s proposed decision was released, an education department spokeswoman told the Journal Inquirer: “We are strong proponents of transparency, but we are also bound by our duty to ensure the information we present to the public is accurate.”
If the full Freedom of Information Commission adopts Ross’s findings at its Feb. 24 meeting, the department will know which of those two interests is paramount.