Tax Dollars at Work

Georgia officers travel to Vermont to grill anti-testing advocate.

By Robert McGuire

Susan Ohanian, a former elementary school teacher who has written several books on education, doesn’t have much cause for school security officers or state troopers to come knocking on the door of her Vermont home. So she was taken by surprise when officers traveled all the way from Gwinnett County, Ga., to see her in late July. The officers were accompanied by a Vermont State Trooper and made threats of fingerprints, search warrants, extradition, and felony-related charges.

The reason? A copy of a standardized test to be given to students in Gwinnett County had been leaked to the media last April before the test was administered.

Ohanian has never been to Gwinnett County, Ga. However, she is a nationally known critic of high-stakes standardized tests and author of the book One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards. Furthermore, some of the photocopied Gwinnett County tests were mailed anonymously and bore a postmark not far from Ohanian’s home in Charlotte, Vt.

The controversy involves the $6 million Gateway test developed by McGraw-Hill for fourth and seventh graders in Gwinnett County, Georgia’s largest school district. Officials have mandated the test even though the district is one of the best in the state at producing high test scores.

The leaked test involves the fourth-grade test. It isn’t clear if the test was stolen out of a school or if the leak occurred at the printers or at McGraw Hill. The Gwinnett County Public Schools will not comment on the case because the investigation is continuing. The officers visiting Ohanian were employees of the school district and are known as School Resource Officers.

The first person the officers wanted to question was Lisa Amspaugh, leader of the parents’ group Concerned Parents of Gwinnett, which has raised questions about high-stakes testing. Because she was out of town when the investigation began, officer James Keinard telephoned Virginia to question Gerald Bracey, author of The War on America’s Public Schools, to ask if he knew where she took her vacations. (He doesn’t.) Keinard also asked Bracey if he knew anything about Ohanian, whom Bracey has never met.

Next stop was Amspaugh’s office where, according to her, Keinard threatened to arrest her receptionist for obstruction after some confusion about when Amspaugh would be available to meet him.

“Their whole goal was to implicate me in the theft of the test,” Amspaugh says. “Basically, they want to get me out of the way.”

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that other parents in the group opposing the tests say they were contacted by the security officers and felt harassed.

Suspects in the Gwinnett case have been threatened with ten years in jail and $50,000 fines.

When Keinard finally did speak to Amspaugh, he also was interested in how she knows Ohanian. Amspaugh says Keinard must have linked Ohanian to her through phone records, because they had spoken on the phone before, and that both are on some of the same e-mail discussion lists.

Still on the search for suspects, Keinard and another security officer, escorted by a Vermont State Police officer, showed up at Ohanian’s door on a Saturday morning in July and questioned her for about 20 minutes. Ohanian says they first threatened her with jail time and fines. They then switched tactics, saying they understood that she was an innocent dupe. She says they left making more threats about search warrants, fingerprints, and extradition.

This is not the first time school officials have threatened action against opponents of high-stakes test. In Chicago, the Chicago Board of Education fired and filed a $1 million suit against teacher George Schmidt for publishing parts of that district’s tests (after test day) in Substance, a teacher-produced newspaper in Chicago. That case is still pending.