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Published in Print: August 4, 1999, as Ala. Embattled Over Resuming Teacher Testing

Ala. Embattled Over Resuming Teacher Testing

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Efforts to bring teacher testing back to Alabama have kicked up a storm of criticism in the Heart of Dixie this summer, even prompting a gag order against officials involved in the negotiations.

Talks were scheduled for late last week in the hope of resolving the flap, which began last month with the announcement of plans to restart the testing of prospective educators. A federal race-discrimination suit prompted the state to stop administering its teacher licensure exams in 1985.

Almost as soon as they were made public, the plans began to fall apart amid questions about the rigor of the proposed test, and even the company that publishes the exam quickly voiced concerns about the proposal.

"It's a very embarrassing situation for Alabama," Mary Jane Caylor, a state school board member, said before a federal magistrate issued the gag order. "I think it is what brings so much negative press to our state, because we just don't seem to get our act together."

ETS Hesitant

Alabama had administered basic-skills and subject-matter exams to prospective teachers in the early 1980s until a group of black candidates filed a class action. The suit claimed that the exams were improperly validated, and that African-Americans tended to fail them at much higher rates than whites. The tests were tailor-made for the state by the Amherst, Mass.-based National Evaluation Systems.

In a deal struck in 1985, the plaintiffs and the state agreed that Alabama would give subject-matter tests to teachers again only if the exams were designed in a way that minimized the differences between the number of correct answers white and black test-takers gave to individual questions.

The state appeared to be near a final decision several weeks ago when U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in Montgomery expressed tentative approval for a plan to use the PRAXIS I, a basic-skills test published by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J. The plan put aside the issue of more indepth subject-matter tests.

Edward R. Richardson

Negotiators for both the education department and the plaintiffs agreed to the proposal, recognizing the state would still have to seek bids before choosing an exam.

Days after the plan was announced, however, ETS officials said they were reluctant to enter the litigious arena of teacher testing in Alabama. The nonprofit test-maker voiced concerns about validation procedures called for in the agreement as well as other parts of the plan.

"We believe our reputation rests on our allegiance to some very high technical standards and on some very sound advice to our clients," said Mari Pearlman, an ETS vice president. "And we believed we were going to be jeopardizing that."

Test Too Easy?

At the same time, The Birmingham News reported that much of the PRAXIS I exam's content is geared toward a middle school level, making it an easier test than the high school graduation exam Alabama recently adopted. State board members and Gov. Don. Siegelman, a Democrat, excoriated the education department. Tempers were stoked by state schools Superintendent Edward R. Richardson's admission that he didn't realize the relatively low level of the PRAXIS I.

"I was surprised," he said. "It's used in 25 states, so we assumed that would be what we would use."

Most states requiring the PRAXIS I administer it to college sophomores to screen them for education school. Although many also require prospective teachers to pass more sophisticated tests later to become licensed, several states do not, making the PRAXIS I the sole exam individuals in those states must pass to become teachers.

Among the comments quoted in the local media in the past few weeks, a member of the governor's staff said Mr. Siegelman "isn't sure which Richardson to believe"--the one who said the test would be rigorous, or the one who later agreed that it should not be used if it is a test of basic skills.

"I said [to the state superintendent], I can really only ask you one question," Ms. Caylor, the state board member, told Education Week, "and that is: How in the world can we be this far into this process, and you did not know that this test is just a test of basic competency?"

The public furor came to an end July 21, when U.S. Magistrate John Carroll, who has been mediating the teacher-testing negotiations, issued a gag order prohibiting anyone involved in the talks from making public statements on the issue.

Unable to give details after the order was handed down, Mr. Richardson later said: "I would just say that what we have to consider would be all the options that would be available to us. We're not eliminating any of it."

Ultimately, this summer's controversy could be healthy for Alabama, if it means the state adopts more rigorous tests, said Kati Haycock, who directs the Education Trust. The Washington-based group, which promotes higher standards for schools, recently surveyed state licensing exams and found many of them wanting.

"Nobody in Alabama should have an illusion that the PRAXIS I is even close to adequate to ensure that teachers in the state can teach kids to high standards," Ms. Haycock said. "So the fact that that's out of the closet isn't a bad thing."

Vol. 18, Issue 43, Page 3

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