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Testing Practicing Teachers:The Battle Nobody Really Won?

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The settlement reached this month between the National Education Association and the state of Georgia over its teacher-testing program effectively ended a three-year war the union had waged in the federal courts to block state-mandated testing of practicing teachers.

On one front, the nea lost that war. It,3lfailed to block testing requirements for veteran teachers in the three states--Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas--that adopted them.

But on a broader front, the union may have been victorious. A number of education observers believe the rancor and controversy the testing practice aroused in the three states squelched similar moves elsewhere.

Policymakers in other states, they say, have come to realize that the benefits of initiating that kind of testing would not be worth the political and legal costs.

A very small percentage of the teachers in the states with the testing programs have failed the exams. Those who failed initially were given additional chances to pass, and most did.

As a result, very few "incompetent" teachers have been identified and banished from the classroom.

"In my opinion, the acrimony that the testing evoked was determined to be a very high price to pay for the results," said Mark D. Musick, vice president and director of state services with the Southern Regional Education Board.

"I suspect," he added, "that leaders in other states looked at that price, and either because they had other things going, or because they weighed the price and the outcome, decided such a program wasn't for them."

Said Denis P. Doyle, a senior research fellow at the Hudson Institute: "I think the idea would have caught on if it hadn't been for the political opposition."

"The nea," he asserted, "will expend a lot of its war chest to try and kill something of this kind."

Both the nea and its smaller rival organization, the American Federation of Teachers, oppose testing veteran teachers for recertification purposes, but support testing new teachers for initial certification.

"Three or four years ago, there seemed to be a rush to put these tests in place," said Robert Chanin, general counsel for the nea "Arkansas, Texas, and Georgia did it and other states were considering it."

But that has changed, he noted, adding, "I think the move toward testing certified, inservice teachers has died on the vine."

Stormy History

In 1983, legislators in Arkansas, at the urging of Gov. Bill Clinton, became the first in the nation to pass a law that required all practicing teachers to demonstrate their competence by passing a basic-skills test.

Mr. Clinton and lawmakers said they would support a sales-tax increase to pay for educational improvements, including raises for teachers, but only with some assurance that the quality of teaching would improve.

The Governor had heard that a number of teachers in the state lacked the basic skills needed to perform their jobs adequately. He argued that testing the skills of those teachers would be a quick way to restore the public's confidence in the public schools.

In 1985, lawmakers in Georgia and Texas followed Arkansas' lead. In Texas, veteran teachers were required to pass a basic-skills test similar to the one used in Arkansas. And Georgia teachers were required to take a subject-area test, a requirement for all new teachers since 1978.

In all three states, failure to pass the exams resulted in the loss of certification and a job.

Said Demeaning and Deceitful

The nea and its affiliates bitterly attacked the testing measures, arguing that they were mere "political gestures" that "demeaned" teachers and "deceived" the public.

Performance on a paper-and-pencil test, union leaders asserted, is not an indicator of teaching ability. In addition, they argued, it was unfair to change the rules for teachers in the middle of their careers.

But proponents of the testing laws argued that any person who could not pass a simple basic-skills or subject-area exam was not qualified to teach and should not be permitted in the classroom.

"Most teachers had no reason to be anxious because the tests were not that difficult," said Arthur Wise, director of the rand Corporation's center for the study of the teaching profession. "But the idea that a teacher could lose a job on the basis of performance on a single exam shook them right to their core."

"The whole process is an onerous and distasteful one for teachers," said Mr. Doyle. "So the union leadership was under great pressure to fight these tests."

In each state, the nea filed lawsuits in federal court to block the testing and the resulting dismissals. The suits charged that the tests discriminated against minorities and were not valid predictors of job performance.

But in Texas and Arkansas, the suits were withdrawn after numerous administrations of the tests produced passing scores for the overwhelming majority of minority teachers.

And in Georgia, the union settled its suit on March 2 for the same reason. (See Education Week, March 9, 1988.)

Merits Debated

Just what testing in the three states accomplished is a matter of debate.

The nea has taken the position that it has been a waste of time, money, and effort, and that it has lowered teacher morale.

"Millions of dollars were spent weeding out a handful of teachers who could have been identified through a proper evaluation system," Mr. Chanin said last week. The nea supports classroom evaluations of teachers on a regular basis.

Education officials in the testing states argue that the effort was worth the costs because it demonstrated to the public that the vast majority of teachers are capable, qualified people.

"I think it restored the credibility of the teaching profession," one official in Arkansas asserted after the union withdrew its suit in that state.

Said Mr. Musick, "If the testing did that, I would say that is a very important accomplishment."

But he and other observers questioned whether passing the kind of test the states used proves anything.

"If folks look at the outcome and say this was just a literacy test, they may not be reassured," Mr. Musick suggested.

The fact that a number of teachers who passed did so only after several tries also may detract from the "appearance of rigor" in the eyes of the public, Mr. Wise said.

On the positive side, said Mr. Musick, the tests may have enhanced teachers' basic skills, because those who were found to be deficient in certain areas were forced to study and improve.

In addition, the sreb official said, the tests also contributed to increased funding for education in the three states.

"In those states," he said, "teachers have salaries that are higher today than they would have been if you believe the legislators when they say, 'We couldn't have approved these increases without the tests."'

Removing the Incompetent?

It is difficult to ascertain just how many teachers have been removed from the classroom for failing to pass the tests.

In Arkansas, education officials report that roughly 1,300--or 3.5 percent--of the state's certified school employees failed to pass by the cut-off date.

In Georgia, where testing of veteran teachers will continue for several more years, state officials say that roughly 320 who were required to pass the test by last summer to become recertified failed to do so.

Texas officials say that 1,875--or 1 percent--of the educators in the state failed the test and lost their jobs as a result.

In Arkansas, however, a large number of those who failed to meet the testing requirement may retain their jobs for several more years. They will not be forced from the classroom until their current certification expires.

Need for Standards

And in Georgia, state officials reported after the beginning of the current school year that more than 30 percent of the teachers who failed to pass the test by the deadline were teaching as substitutes, many on a full-time basis, and many of those in the jobs they had held the previous year.

Most education observers interviewed agreed that the move to test veteran teachers, and the furor it produced, helped focus national attention on the variable quality of the teaching force, and on the need for improved standards for the profession.

"I think it has helped turn the public's attention to the importance of education standards for teachers, and focused the attention of union leaders on the importance of teacher standards in general," said Mr. Doyle.

"In its most positive light, it was a public declaration of a problem," concurred Mr. Wise.

"And now we are moving to deal with that problem in more sophisticated ways."

"Many state policymakers," he said, "have come around to the view that you need to solve the problem in two ways, by having an effective teacher-education and licensure system, and by implementing an effective remediation and dismissal policy for those teachers who fall down on the job."

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