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The Perils Of Testing Teachers

Brouhaha erupts in Massachusetts as 3 in 5 prospective teachers fail a new exam.

It seems as simple as ABC: People who want to teach children should themselves be able to pass a test on basic grammar and math.

In this day of education reform, the idea of testing teachers for competency has support from an overwhelming proportion of parents. It would seem, too, to be a natural extension of President Clinton's push for high standards for students.

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But as Massachusetts is now learning, the road to teacher testing can be paved with peril - for teachers, for schools, and even for politicians who get mired in this potentially explosive issue.

"The accountability wave is still sweeping the country, and the Massachusetts case will be a catalyst for a lot of discussion," says Mike Zipko, spokesman for Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson (R).

Forty states now have some form of teacher testing, but the current Massachusetts brouhaha over a new exam for teacher-hopefuls has left the public here shocked by poor test results and angered by official waffling over what to do about it. Teachers, for their part, are feeling bashed.

Critics of teacher testing say all the confusion in the Bay State bears out their concerns. Even if the exam weeds out people who might be poor teachers, it can also scare away good ones - only adding to the nation's teacher shortage.

States, in turns out, set their own levels of proficiency, even if they use the same standardized test. A passing score in one state might be a failing grade in another - and a state sometimes raises or lowers the bar to pass more or fewer teachers.

That's what happened in the Bay State. It all started two weeks ago, when 59 percent of 1,800 prospective teachers - almost 3 in 5 - failed the state's new certification test. Shocked at the results, the Board of Education decided to temporarily lower the standard so that fewer people (44 percent) would fail.

As public criticism of the decision mounted, acting Gov. Paul Cellucci (R), who's locked in a tight campaign to retain his seat, began to feel the heat.

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Reversing his hands-off approach, Acting Gov. Cellucci not only told the education board to return to its high standards, but he called for all teachers in the state - new and old - to take the test. If they fail, he said, they should be fired.

Before Cellucci knew it, his Board of Education chairman had resigned. And critics - even though they agreed with him on high standards - were lambasting him for flip-flopping. On Wednesday, the board voted to reinstate the higher standard.

Higher failure rates

The failure rate in the Massachusetts exam may seem dramatic, but it is consistent with the experience of other states.

As states begin to raise their standards, a bigger slice of test-takers are failing. In Virginia, which now has the highest cutoff score in the nation for one widely used exam, one-third of prospective teachers didn't pass the test administered in February. If other states had set their standard as high, more than half of teaching applicants nationwide would have failed, said Virginia Gov. James Gilmore (R).

Still, Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania recently raised their cutoff scores. In Pennsylvania, that change is expected to cut the pass rate from 90 to 70 percent.

"We're beginning to see many states making their tests more difficult," says Wayne Martin of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "As more states go to a standards-based system, they want teachers prepared to teach in a standards-based environment."

Pitfall for pols

The decision to raise the bar for new teachers can, and often does, become political.

When then-Gov. Bill Clinton proposed a mandatory skills test for Arkansas teachers in 1985, he made national headlines. Some 37,000 teachers took the exam. Some of the 3.6 percent who flunked retook the parts they failed, while others opted to retire. But the experience was so contentious, it hasn't been repeated.

"The teachers were angry. Some had masters degrees and beyond and resented being asked to take a competency exam. Many just bowed out," says Skip Hibblen, coordinator of professional licensing in Arkansas.

For teachers unions, testing is a high-stakes issue. Last year, members of the National Education Association passed a resolution that testing shouldn't be used as a condition of "employment, license retention, evaluation, placement, ranking, or promotion."

Indeed, teachers unions have had some success in squelching tough new testing proposals.

Last month, North Carolina backed off a plan to require all teachers in low-performing schools to pass a general-knowledge test after teachers threatened litigation and a boycott of the exam. Unions argued the tests would dissuade qualified teachers from working in the neediest schools.

Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson (R), however, resisted similar calls to ease up on a skills test for new teachers, after Southeast Asian applicants consistently failed the test.

"The governor said that if we were going to have higher standards for students, we had to have higher standards for teachers," says Mike Zipko, education spokes-man for Governor Carlson.

But it may be difficult for teachers' unions to continue to resist all teacher testing. Polls show there's widespread acceptance of the concept: Eighty-four percent of respondents in a Good Housekeeping poll from January, for instance, said teachers should be retested periodically to keep their teaching licenses.

Moreover, testing people new to a profession, as among lawyers, is a well-established idea. But it's also true that other professionals spend months preparing for their exams.

The big surprise

One major flaw in the Massachusetts test is that it was something of a surprise. Just two weeks before taking it, the prospective teachers were told it would count as a real exam. They had thought it would be just for practice.

Moreover, critics say sometimes the standards can be unrealistic.

In Massachusetts, one sample test question is: "What is a preposition?"

"Well, I sure know how to use it, but I'm not sure I could define it [in a way that would satisfy test examiners]," says 12-year veteran English teacher Susanne Rubenstein, who teaches in Holden, Mass.

"I can't measure my students' abilities only through tests," says Ms. Rubenstein. "And it seems like testing everyone for everything is a dangerous thing to do."

By the way, Webster's New World Dictionary defines a preposition this way: "In some languages, a relation or function word ... that connects a lexical word, usually a noun or pronoun, or a syntactic construction, to another element of the sentence...."

If You Want to Teach, Answer the Following Questions

* The new Massachusetts exam for teachers might include questions like these. Acceptable answers are also given.

Q: The following sentence contains one or more grammatical errors. Rewrite the sentence in proper grammatical form.

A distinguished scholar and a great teacher, Professor Smith's famous lecture on the pyramids are not to be missed.

A: Professor Smith is a distinguished scholar and a great teacher whose famous lectures on the pyramids are not to be missed.

Q. Define the word abolish.

A: To do away with completely, to put an end to.

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