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Tangents on tests disturbing

Testing officials are getting an eyeful of violent, drug-related and suicidal thoughts scrawled on state essay exams.

Such tangents are found on very few of the some 74,000 direct writing exams the State Office of Education collects every year under the U-PASS law.

But some are disturbing, and, state education officials say, require response. The State Board of Education today is poised to create new rules to help teachers and principals know what to do.

"If a student's willing to write down, 'I'm going to kill myself,' obviously they want some help," said Jean Hill, education specialist, investigator and prosecutor for the State Office of Education. "We just don't want anyone to slip through the cracks."

The Utah Performance Assess-ment System for Students, or U-PASS, since spring 2002 has required sixth- and ninth-grade students to take a direct writing exam, where students write a short essay on a prescribed topic.

Topics touch on things such as the merits of homework rather than personal issues, Hill said.

Still, some students use the test to further express themselves, Hill said. Each year, the contractor who scores the tests red flags five to 10 of the tests, and returns them to the State Office of Education for further review.

Sometimes, the tangents are penned by kids who simply don't want to take the test, Hill said. But sometimes, they include thoughts of hurting others, personal stories about drug use or suicidal thoughts.

"It's (viewed as) an anonymous test, and the students want to vent, and vent that way," Hill said.

The state school board today will examine a new rule aimed at helping teachers and principals handle those situations.

Under the rule, the state school board would have to notify the school principal, counselor or district worker that the student's scrawlings indicate he or she may be in or headed for crisis, and provide a copy. The district superintendent also will be kept in the loop.

School workers would be directed to use "their best professional judgment" and notify the child's parent or police "as soon as practical." If the school calls parents or police, the State Office of Education has to know about it.

However, the student's essay will not become part of the student's record, and the school must destroy any copies of it once the matter is resolved.

"It's just so that we have a process," Hill said, "and a means for students who need help."