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Nev. Suit Challenges Basic-Skills Test for Teachers

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A state judge will decide by early November whether the Nevada education department can revoke the licenses of teachers who fail to pass a required basic-skills test.

Martin Kravitz, a lawyer representing a group of teachers who failed the test, as well as the Clark County Teachers Association, argued in court last week that the state uses the Pre-Professional Skills Test improperly.

It was designed by the Educational Testing Service to assess college students and new teachers, not experienced teachers, the lawsuit argues, and the E.T.S. specifically warns that it should not be used as the sole criterion for deciding a teacher's competency. The suit also says that teachers--and even school nurses--are required to pass an exam that includes material irrelevant to their particular work.

In their response to the suit, state officials argue that setting basic-skills standards for teachers is reasonable, and note that Nevada's cutoff score is low compared with those of other states.

The test is part of a system adopted in 1989 by the state's Commission on Professional Standards in Education, which was authorized by the legislature to set licensing requirements.

Teachers new to Nevada, as well as beginning teachers, are issued a provisional license for two years. During that period, they must pass the P.P.S.T., as well as tests geared to their subject-area specialties, to obtain a full license.

Between 1989 and 1991, the basic-skills test was given on a trial basis. But the commission required teachers hired after January 1991 to pass it by that September. The panel later extended the deadline to Sept. 9, 1994.

According to Keith W. Rheault, the state's interim deputy superintendent, 64 teachers did not make the deadline, including about 40 from Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.

The Clark County union filed a suit against the education department and the licensing commission, and District Court Judge Don Chairez issued a preliminary injunction preventing the Clark County teachers from being fired until mid-October. Last week, he extended it to Nov. 3, and he is expected to issue a ruling by then.

Many of the 64 teachers who missed the deadline have since passed the test or received extensions, Mr. Rheault said, and only a few have been fired or retained as substitutes at a lower pay rate. Chuck Bolden, the interim executive director of the Clark County Teachers Association, said the union's suit represents 33 teachers who have failed the test, although the brief filed by the state attorney general says that only 13 Clark County teachers are in danger of losing their jobs.

"We know who these teachers are," Mr. Bolden said. "They've been evaluated by the district and have been a success in the classroom. These are not marginal teachers."

The suit asks the court to bar officials from requiring experienced teachers to take the test in order to teach in Clark County, and from denying a license to any teacher in the district based solely on failure to pass it.

Mr. Bolden also argued that it was foolish to set a deadline several weeks into the school year, and expressed hope that the judge would not force teachers to leave their classrooms now.

"Teachers are in school now, and have put up bulletin boards and bonded with the children," Mr. Bolden said.

In an unusual twist, the county union is also asking the judge to remove Rick Milsap, the president of the Nevada State Education Association, from the licensing commission. His slot on the panel is one that the law set aside for a full-time classroom teacher, and the suit argues that since his union job is a full-time post, his appointment is illegal. In arguing his case last week, Mr. Kravitz said that the commission is controlled by the N.S.E.A.

Political Concerns

The panel sought "to protect the key membership of the majority of the unions of this state by developing examinations which would only apply, not to them, but to all the people who arrived after them," he was quoted as saying by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

William Hanlon, a member of the state board of education, has also campaigned for Mr. Milsap's removal. "I believe the influence exerted by special-interest groups has contributed to ... some of the [nation's] lowest standards for teacher licensure," he wrote to the state attorney general.

Mr. Hanlon said in an interview that he agrees the P.P.S.T. is unfair, and argued that the state should explore alternatives to requiring testing for education degrees.

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