Writing test sparks child abuse row

CANADA. Teachers and civil liberties lawyers have criticised the handling of a British Columbia writing test which led to 46 investigations of child abuse.

Education ministry markers turned over 46 test papers to the Ministry of Children and Families because the essays these children wrote in response to the question "What does home mean to you?" suggested child abuse, officials revealed this week.

The tests were taken last spring by pupils aged 9, 13 and 15.

Paige MacFarlane, communications officer for the British Columbia education ministry, said qualified protection workers were asked to look at any scripts which contained "something questionable". He added: "The child protection worker then referred those judged questionable to the Ministry of Children and Families for further action which in some cases involved investigation of families."

Mark Sieben, manager for child protection policy and standards, said that the tests were sent to the ministry in accordance with the Child Family and Community Services Act. The act requires anyone who believes a child has been or is likely to be physically or sexually harmed to notify the appropriate authorities.

Professor Andrew Irwin, president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, accused the education boards and the department of education of exceeding their mandate. "They should not go out trawling for this kind of information," he said.

Walter Fox, a well-known criminal and civil liberties lawyer in Toronto, said such action was legal and may even be required, although it was morally questionable. He added: "But what does it tell us about the kind of moral panic we're in when we go snooping in this way?" Kit Krieger, president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, accepted that teachers have a special duty to alert child protection officials in cases of suspected child abuse. However, he is concerned that families have been investigated on the basis of an essay that may not be the truth. He said it was a violation of the principles of fair testing to use the tests in this way without warning parents in advance that such action could follow.

British Columbia's Ministry of Children and Families is divided into regions and does not keep cumulative records, so the government is unable to say how the 46 cases have been dealt with.

The test results, which indicated that more than 79 per cent of students in each grade met or exceeded expected standards for their grade, were praised by the minister Paul Ramsay. He promised to investigate a trend, confirmed by the test, for male students to lag behind girls in reading and writing.

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