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The flap over teacher tests takes a new twist

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) thinks the idea of giving an already practicing teacher a test to keep his or her job deserves an F. In a move to stop what the leading American academic testmaker considers a misuse of its National Teacher Examination (NTE), ETS recently forbade any state or school district from using the test in such a manner.

This fall Arkansas was the first state to announce plans to use such tests to evaluate teachers already in the classroom. The new Arkansas law requires that after 1987 all teachers must pass an academic-skills test to keep their certification.

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ETS disagrees strongly with the intent of the new law and seeks to dissociate itself from any use of the tests other than to screen students preparing to enter teaching. Once a teacher is on the job our tests cannot be used ''to determine the compensation, retention, termination, advancement, pay supplements , or changes in provisional employment of teachers,'' said Gregory Anrig, president of the not-for-profit Princeton, N.J., company best known for its college entrance exam, the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Mr. Anrig justified ETS's unprecedented action in response to the nationwide movement to improve school standards on grounds that ''the pendulum of teacher testing is swinging fast and in a direction that I feel is ill-advised for education. . . . Better sources of information on teaching competency are available. Once [a teacher is] employed, direct classroom supervision and evaluation of the teachers are possible and you can then assess those essential qualities of teaching competence . . . that cannot be measured effectively by any paper-and-pencil examination . . . qualities such as dedication, sensitivity , perseverance, caring,'' Mr. Anrig said.

At present 11 states use teacher tests to screen students preparing to enter the profession. But officials in a score of other states and districts have begun to look at the tests as a way to remove incompetent teachers already in the classroom. The Houston Independent School District requires teachers to take the NTE or one of two other tests; the system will freeze pay and reduce benefits of teachers who don't pass. The Mobile County School Board in Alabama has plans to use the NTE in a similar way.

Mr. Anrig says he does consider the NTE ''appropriate for establishing eligibility for state certification to enter the teacher profession,'' and adds, ''Teacher tests are also appropriate as part of the process of selecting teachers for initial employment in a school district.''

The nation's two largest teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), both welcome ETS's stand against teacher testing of already employed teachers. ''No other profession requires someone to pass a test as a sole and determining condition of employment after they are on the job,'' says Mary H. Futrell, president of NEA.

Albert Shanker, president of the AFT, has long endorsed teacher testing for entry into the profession and views the use of such tests as a tool for restoring public confidence in teachers. At its annual convention in July, the NEA changed its position against the use of tests for beginning teachers and now gives the measure a qualified endorsement.

Houston school officials emphasize that state certification is not contingent on the NTE test and that it is just one of the three tests from which its teachers must choose; the others are a test devised by the district, the Functional Academic Skills Test; and another ETS test, the Pre-Professional Skills Test.

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''How will the cloud of incompetence that hangs over the teaching profession be removed?'' asks Houston school superintendent Billy Reagan. Teacher testing is one way, he feels. Tests are appropriate, Houston school officials say, especially when the Houston district is one of the few big-city school systems in the country to receive more money from taxpayers which has gone into increased teacher salaries. Free remedial help for any teacher is available at the district's expense.

When a district contracts with ETS to give the test, it must do so for a specific number and an agreed-upon use. ETS also protects its tests by copyright.

California state Sen. Gary Hart (not to be confused with the Democratic presidential aspirant from Colorado of the same name) sponsored a bill that requires all new teachers in his state to take an entry test. ''We can't guarantee that just because someone passes a test they will be a good teacher,'' Senator Hart says. ''But we do know that there is no way they'll be a good teacher if they fail it.''

Hart had written into the bill a provision that the state must publish an indication of the institution of higher learning from which students who fail the test graduated. ''The day this information is published on the front pages of newspapers in our state, it causes a certain degree of . . . soul-searching in university education departments,'' Hart says. That's ''exactly where we want to put pressure on improving teacher training.''

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