Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT),...

Karen Magee, president of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), addresses members during the closing of the 42nd Annual Representative Assembly on Sunday, April 5, 2014. Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY -- New York's largest teachers' union has sued the state Education Department over what it called a "gag order" banning discussion of state standardized tests.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court this week, seeks to invalidate the confidentiality agreements the state agency requires teachers to sign before scoring the exams. The union calls the agreement a "gag order" and "an unconstitutional prior restraint on teachers' free speech rights."

"Teachers must be free to protect their students and speak out when they have concerns about state tests. Instead, they are under a 'gag order' to be silent -- and that is hurting children," Karen E. Magee, president of New York State United Teachers, said in a statement. "Teachers are the professionals in the classroom. Their voice is essential to robust public debate about the state testing system. If teachers believe test questions are unfair or inappropriate, they should be able to say so without fear of dismissal or losing their teaching license."

Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the state Education Department, said the claim wasn't true.

"Teachers are absolutely free to talk about the portions of the test that have been released," Tompkins said. "They have been doing this for years. The only prohibition is for secure, non-released test questions that may be used on future tests."

The plaintiffs in the case are four teachers from the Rochester area and one from Taconic Hills, southeast of Albany. In its lawsuit, NYSUT claims that "in 2014, for the first time, teachers who proctor and administer the state English Language Arts and math exams were prohibited from reading the exams. The only teachers permitted access to the 2014 exams were teachers directly involved in the scoring process and who had to sign confidentiality agreements."

The union said the confidentiality agreement requires teachers not to "use or discuss the content of secure test materials, including test questions and answers, in any classroom or other activities, including speaking in a public forum as a citizen." That, the union said, establishes a system to "police the free exchange of ideas and opinions regarding its compulsory and costly testing regime."

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