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Dallas jury denies public access to education records

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Dallas jury denies public access to education records

  • A Dallas County jury denied a local community activist access to anonymous public school students’ standardized test scores, which he sought to link to anonymous teachers.

April 7, 2004 — A jury in Dallas County, Texas, last week denied community activist Russell Fish access to public school records he has sought for more than six years. Fish, who mused that the jury’s April 1 decision was “an April Fool’s joke,” wanted the records to create a Web site that would chronicle the successes and failures of teachers in Texas public schools.

After eight hours of deliberation, the jury decided that granting Fish access to the records could violate federal privacy laws concerning the disclosure of student information.

Fish began pursuing the records in October 1997. He asked the Dallas Independent School District for 11 years’ worth of individual student scores from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, a standardized test of math and English. The district said he could have the records for $2,000. Fish declined to pay the fee, and the district refused to turn over the scores. Fish sued in February 1998.

The Texas Education Agency, the state’s department of education, publishes online the test scores of every public school in the state. As required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, scores are broken down by subgroups of race, gender, disability and poverty to assess “yearly adequate progress” in each category.

Fish argued in court that he wants students’ individual scores to hold teachers publicly accountable. He said he asked the district to replace students’ names with unique, random numbers. The identity of teachers would also be shielded, with numbers that somehow coincided with those of the students they taught.

However, District Attorney Eric Moye, who argued the case for the school district, told the Dallas Morning News that the case “was never about teacher accountability. It was about the information being easily traceable to individual children.”

Fish’s attorney, Clayton Trotter, disputed that claim.

In its testimony the school district said that the names would be “masked,” by random numbers, Trotter said. “But I don’t like that word, because it implies that numbers could be traced back to students’ names, and they couldn’t. We asked for the names to be completely replaced.”

Trotter said Fish simply wants to compile data that would show how teachers are performing — based on the test scores of their students — so the public can evaluate each school’s success.

“The public should have the same capacity for managing public information as government,” he added.

Trotter said he will file a motion with the court this week for a new trial. If the motion is denied, he said he will appeal the jury’s decision.

The Dallas chapter of the NAACP has joined Fish’s lawsuit, and the state attorney general filed a friend-of-the-court brief in 2000 backing Fish.

(Fish v. Dallas Independent School District; Counsel: Clayton Trotter, Texas Justice Foundation, Dallas) LH

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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