Why do schools hide exams from parents?

July 21, 2013

Some education issues never appear in political debates, op-ed pages or blue-ribbon commission reports. That doesn’t make them any less irritating. Take, for instance, the widespread reluctance to let students take exams home after they are marked and graded.

My recent column about a Montgomery County father who was denied a chance to see his son’s tests so he could help the boy improve brought a surge of e-mails and blog comments, as happens every time I mention this mostly ignored but frequent parental complaint.

“Any test deserves a critique, otherwise how is the student to learn from his or her mistakes or, even better, build on their strengths,” said Terry Davies, a father and grandfather in Leesburg. “How many times have I heard a teacher say that the biggest problem in education today is not the quality of the teaching but the quality of the parenting. Now here a quality parent is stonewalled in an attempt to aid his struggling students.”

One mother said a well-regarded D.C. charter school returned only the multiple-choice answer sheets, not the corresponding questions, because it wanted to recycle them on future exams. “That made no sense to us,” she said. An elementary school father said he was mystified for more than a year because his son seemed to understand his lessons but did so poorly on standardized tests. Only when a test came home by mistake did he discover his son’s obsessive-compulsive disorder was causing him to avoid marking any B or C answers.

An Urbana father said when he protested a school’s refusal to let him see the graded exams of his autistic son, an administrator said it would be unfair “to let those students with involved parents get the extra help.”

Not seeing state standardized final exams does not bother parents so much. The results come too late to help their children prepare. But barring them from seeing monthly and midterm exams makes little sense to them or me. Looking at last year’s tests is considered cheating by today’s schools. In my day, it was called review. Today’s schools appear to have no data justifying their position.

Howard Kaplan, a retired biology teacher, said he always returned exams because “that was the summation of that section.” He said other teachers “didn’t return exams because it meant that they would have to construct new exams every time. However, being a good teacher means you work hard.”

Montgomery County schools spokesman Brian Edwards said schools don’t send tests home but will let parents see all but semester and final exams if they come to school, an inconvenience that cuts off parents who have to be at work and frustrates others. Sharon Karayianis said only after many e-mails to staff did she get permission to see her daughter’s exams at Churchill High School.

“The meeting had to be during normal staff hours so that it did require my child to miss class instructional time,” Karayianis said. “It also required me to miss more than a half a day of work.”

After reviewing the exams for four hours, “I realized how important it was to do so,” she said. “I was greatly impressed with the constructive comments given by teachers. They took a lot of effort grading the exams, and their comments would have fallen on deaf ears if we had not made the appointment to see the exams.”

Why do schools want to keep such helpful teaching a secret?

Some educators and parents see school as a competition. Nobody should get an advantage in the race for top grades. Cheating, not learning, seems to be their greatest concern. Other educators and parents see school as a place where everyone gets a chance to improve their skills and thinking, with as much support as possible. What better way to improve than to have the ability to learn from your own mistakes?

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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