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Published in Print: November 3, 2004, as Expansion of Licensing Test Hits New Bumps

Expansion of Licensing Test Hits New Bumps

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New Hampshire could soon become the fourth state to certify teachers who have earned the Passport to Teaching—a package of alternative teacher-credentialing tests designed by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence.

The expansion of the controversial program, however, comes as new inquiries are being raised over funding the group received from the U.S. Department of Education to craft the tests that target career-switchers or recent college graduates who don’t have education degrees.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate grants totaling $40 million to the ABCTE, which is affiliated with the Education Leaders Council, a conservative-leaning policy group based in Washington.

Kathleen Madigan

In an Oct. 21 letter to the GAO, Congress’ watchdog arm, Mr. Miller noted, as was reported in Education Week earlier this year, that an initial $5 million grant was awarded despite the fact that two peer reviewers for the department advised against it. ("Education Dept. Ignored Reviewers in Issuing Grant for Teachers' Test," March 17, 2004.)

“The awarding of these grants to applicants who do not appear to meet the standards proscribed for grantees in the statute or by independent peer reviewers raises serious questions. The association of these grantees to high-ranking Department of Education officials compounds these concerns,” Mr. Miller wrote, referring chiefly to Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok, who helped found the ELC in 1995 while he was Pennsylvania’s secretary of education. “The GAO should independently and thoroughly review the awarding of these contracts and determine the appropriateness of the decisions awarding millions of dollars to these companies.”

But Kathleen Madigan, the president of the Washington-based ABCTE, said last week that reviewers for the subsequent $35 million grant gave the program high marks. She added that she was somewhat puzzled by Mr. Miller’s request.

“We’ve been talking with Miller’s office, and they actually think the program is kind of cool and good,” Ms. Madigan said. “At some point, the politics take over.”

In the meantime, the ABCTE has also been working to make its tests as reliable as possible. Last month, the organization held a four-day “validation” meeting at which 28 subject-matter experts determined that the cutoff scores for the test were set appropriately.

“We just want to have a really solid product out there,” Ms. Madigan said, “and know that we’re making good decisions about people’s knowledge base.”

A ‘Flexible’ State

The Passport to Teaching has already been adopted in Florida, Idaho, and Pennsylvania. The latter requires novices to go through a mentoring program as well.

Abbe Daly, a spokeswoman for the ABCTE, says the group has “irons in the fire” in several other states.

The program is also being used in Texas as part of a pilot project involving about 1,300 teacher-candidates.

In New Hampshire, state legislators recently revised a rule allowing teacher-candidates who have passed nationally validated exams to teach in classrooms there. While the policy formerly cited the more established National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as one example of such a test, the new rule removes any mention of specific programs. The ABCTE is geared toward new teachers, while National Board certification is awarded to experienced teachers.

State officials in New Hampshire see their change as a slight tweaking of a long-standing practice of allowing teachers to enter the profession through alternative routes—a move that many states have implemented more recently.

“Since 1976, we’ve allowed people to demonstrate competence in ways other than traditional teacher-preparation programs,” said Judy Fillion, the director of teacher credentialing for the New Hampshire education department. “We’ve been more flexible than most states.”

Leaders of the ABCTE, however, view the action as a significant step. In a press release, Ms. Madigan said that by removing the reference to the National Board, the change “levels the playing field for programs offering alternative certification.”

Ms. Fillion said her office was still reviewing a validation study of the ABCTE test, but said she “fully expects that we’ll be certifying” teachers who successfully complete the program, which includes a subject-matter test and a test of teaching knowledge.

Rejection in California

New Hampshire’s decision also comes after representatives from the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service—which produces the widely used Praxis teacher-licensure exams—advised state education officials against adopting the ABCTE program.

“The ABCTE test would permit someone who passes an unknown, untried, and unproven test to walk into a classroom and teach students with no preparation or experience in actual teaching skills,” Patricia McAllister, the executive director of public affairs for the ETS, told members of the New Hampshire state board of education earlier this year.

Some education officials in California appear to share that sentiment. In September, the teacher- credentialing commission, which awards licenses in the state, rejected the ABCTE program after 20 speakers argued against it.

“I was disappointed in their decision,” Ms. Madigan said. “People are worried about change. They don’t understand it.”

Vol. 24, Issue 10, Page 5

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