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Houston Supt. Proposes Tests for All Employees

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The Houston Independent School District is initiating what is probably the nation's first districtwide system of competency testing for teachers and administrators, new and currently employed.

Designed, according to Houston school officials, to respond to public demands for more accountability, the program will require that all new teachers and administrators pass a minimum-competency test before they are hired.

In addition, each of the 18,000 teachers, administrators, and other school employees currently working in the Houston school system will be required to pass periodic "performance-based" examinations in order to move up the district's salary scale.

Competency testing of teachers after they have been hired has been vigorously opposed--and, so far, successfully blocked--by teachers' unions across the country. Teachers in Texas, however, do not have collective-bargaining rights.

Although figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 19 states require some competency testing for candidates, no state laws include teachers already certified.

Officials at the Education Commission of the States said that Houston could become the first district to require such competency testing. The Houston testing program, which superintendent Billie R. Reagan said may begin for new teachers as early as next January, is part of a broader "Houston Plan for Excellence in Education," which includes a proposal to increase the salary of a starting teacher to $21,000 by 1985. Texas will introduce its own statewide competency-testing program for education-school applicants in 1984 and new teachers in 1986.

Mr. Reagan estimates that it will cost $10 million to implement the testing program.

None of Texas's 1,100 school districts currently test applicants for teaching jobs, although some are discussing it.

The testing program is vital to "re-establish credibility in the eyes of the general public of the district's overall selection procedures and to fully utilize the time-honored and proven psychological principle that individuals of high quality seek to become members of institutions and organizations having high standards of admission," Mr. Reagan said.

Under the plan, employees from the lowest custodial rung to the administrative hierarchy will face evaluation of their on-the-job competence. There may be typing-skills exams for secretaries and general-literacy and subject-area exams for teachers.

Mr. Reagan said he is also enthusiastic about the possibility of using videotaping or master-teacher panels to assess the performance of teachers.

Principals may be graded on their managerial ability through the use of crisis-simulation and other testing instruments available in the business sector. Also being discussed is the possibility of having teachers take part in a principal's evaluation, and students, in a teacher's assessment.

Those who fail will not face termination, officials are quick to say. They will be given a chance to upgrade their skills--the plan calls for an extensive staff-development program--and will then be retested. Those who fail a second time will have their salaries frozen and will be denied special pay and fringe benefits. Their salaries could increase only when the state schedule rises to the the district's.

Superintendent Reagan said it may be several years before the testing of existing Houston school employees is phased in.

But the school system has told 11 recently-hired principals that their appointments will not become permanent until they pass the competency test, whenever it is introduced.

'Scare Tactics'

Two local teachers' groups, affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers (aft) and the National Education Association (nea), labeled the superintendent's plan "scare tactics." A local aft spokesman, however, also reiterated the union's national stance in favor of testing new teachers only.

The unions, lacking legal power in Texas to bargain collectively or to strike, tempered their criticism at the July meeting at which the school board approved the plan "in concept." Instead, they urged that at least half of the task force that will develop the plan be teachers.

Mr. Reagan responded that involving teachers would be critical to the plan's success, as would the involvement of participants from the community and from the business sector.

Currently, teacher evaluation in Houston schools is conducted by principals during the teachers' first three years, while they are on probationary contracts. But once continuing-contract status is granted, administrative review is often short and sporadic at best, according to Mr. Reagan. He said that the present system is failing badly and that part of the blame must fall on principals, who often show incompetence in evaluating teachers.

Under the new plan, the responsibility for evaluating teachers could shift from principals to a three-member team made up of a principal, an instructional specialist, and an area administrator. Some teachers could be evaluated by such a team as early as this fall, according to the superintendent.

The evaluation measures to be used, Mr. Reagan said, will emphasize results, taking into account student test scores, teacher scores on basic literacy tests, and visible teaching effectiveness over several different visits.

During the evaluation process, those teachers identified as needing follow-up work might be videotaped to help the evaluators develop a "professional-growth" plan, according to the superintendent.

A similar evaluation team will be put together to assess administrative performance, Mr. Reagan said. He wants to begin linking salary increases to the results of such evaluations and to move from across-the-board pay hikes toward a merit-pay plan.

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