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More Districts Use New Screening Technique To Choose Principals

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An intense, two-day testing method that simulates "real-life" situations such as committee meetings and school-board presentations is being used by an increasing number of states and school districts in the selection of principals and assistant principals.

The technique was originally used by American intelligence officers during World War II to select and train potential spies, according to Paul Hersey of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Since then, hundreds of corporations--such as American Telephone and Telegraph, Sears, Roebuck & Company, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, and Standard Oil of Ohio--have utilized it to select middle-management staff, said Joel Moses, manager of research at A.T.&T.

But the technique, called the assessment-center process, only recently attracted the attention of educators, added Mr. Moses, who helped adapt the corporate tests for use by schools.

This fall, 18 centers are in operation, serving one or more school districts, and at least five states are setting up statewide assessment centers. Maine's statewide program has been in operation more than a year, and North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Wisconsin are launching similar projects this year, according to Scott Thomson, executive director of nassp

The principals' group developed the first school-oriented assessment center in 1975, with the assistance of a special task force from the American Psychological Association. The task force, chaired by Mr. Moses, helped identify the skills to be tested and the simulation techniques to be used, Mr. Thomson said.

The purpose of the program is to help school districts make better personnel choices. Traditionally, district officials have used two criteria to judge candidates: a personal interview and the candidate's past record. The assessment-center report offers a third criterion, based on life-like situations, to supplement the other two, said Mr. Thomson. The tests "tend to emphasize merit rather than the old-boy network," he added.

In Austin, Tex., each assessment session usually takes five days, costs about $8,000, and involves six evaluators and 12 candidates, said James Patterson, the district's assistant personnel director. The Austin center conducts three assessments per year and evaluates candidates for the positions of principal, assistant principal, supervisor, and curriculum coordinator, he added.

Assessors are usually full-time school administrators or college professors who volunteer for the job and are trained by nassp specialists. They must hold positions equal to or higher than the job category they are assessing, said Mr. Patterson.

The first two days are devoted to intensive testing of the candidates and the last three to writing up the conclusions. The testing involves a series of simulated situations that typically confront principals, and each is geared to test important job-related capabilities, such as sensitivity, organization, oral communication, problem analysis, judgment, and stress tolerance.

Charles Wiser, a candidate who took the tests in Austin, recalls a segment of the program that tests problem-solving and stress-tolerance skills: "You get a problem. Mine was a junior high where test scores have fallen. You find out why, then you make a presentation about it to the [simulated] school board."

Mr. Wiser said he sat at a table with several assessors facing him and had one hour to ask them questions and then to deliver his speech. ''It did create a stressful situation," he conceded.

The candidates also face in-baskets full of papers and must write out recommended forms of action for each within a limited time, said Mr. Wiser. And they sit in "committee meetings" with other candidates in which they have to work out a problem together, he added.

Finally, they have a personal interview with the assessors, during which they are asked to describe their long-term goals and to assess their own performance, he said.

So far, many educators report they are enthusiastic about the accuracy and insights of the tests. Charles Smith, director of Maine's assessment center, recalled one candidate who went through the program and later told him: "My mother could have written that report. That's how well those assessors got to know me."

Mr. Wiser, on the other hand, said that the situations often seemed ''artificial" and that the traditional selection system was preferable. Other candidates in the Austin area disagreed, however, saying that the tests added a necessary safeguard.

"This is the best thing to come along," said Lavonne Rogers, an administrative coordinator for elementary education. "Too many times, those who do well on the [traditional] interview don't do well on the job."

"It's a process based on actual behavior--it's the next best thing to following candidates around on the job," said Mr. Patterson of the Austin school district, which has assessed 60 candidates in the last two years.

In order to test the effectiveness of the program, several private foundations provided funds for a 1979 study led by Neal Schmitt of Michigan State University. Mr. Schmitt selected 153 candidates who had been through the process and sent out job-performance questionnaires to co-workers, ranging from janitors and bus-drivers to high-ranking superiors.

The study, completed a year ago, found and that in at least 75 percent of the cases, candidates who had scored highest in the assessment tests also received high marks from their colleagues who responded to the questionnaire, Mr. Schmitt said.

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