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Kerry Schmoozes the AFT, Foes and Fans of ETS, And Invasion of the ATMs

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Teacher Magazine's take on education news from around the Web, July 9- 23.

Timing is everything, they say, and Senator John Kerry’s appearance at the AFT convention in Washington, D.C., a little more than a week after skipping the NEA’s shindig in the wake of announcing John Edwards as his running mate, may be proof. Then again, the AFT’s membership, at 1.3 million, is about half the NEA’s. So perhaps Kerry felt more comfortable telling the proportionally smaller crowd that, although he believes in higher teacher pay and plans, as president, to increase education funding by billions, he’s also a proponent of rewarding teachers for student achievement and removing those who don’t deliver. Still, the AFT crowd gave Kerry the warmest of receptions, counteracting the slight chill caused by maverick member Brenda Barrow outside the convention hall. Holding an “AFT Member for Bush” sign and wearing an Uncle Sam stovepipe hat, the 25-year classroom vet from Virginia said, “In my mind, [Bush has] done an excellent job with [the] No Child Left Behind Act.”

Would that the same could be said for ETS. The testing giant admitted to a big snafu recently, saying that, because of scoring errors on tests used to license teachers in 18 states, 4,100 people who should have passed failed instead. It seems that essay questions on the Praxis Principles of Learning and Teaching for grades 7-12 were, according to an ETS spokesman, “graded more stringently than normal.” Some of the tests—which help determine whether a teacher is “highly qualified” per NCLB—were taken as early as January 2003. That means those who “failed,” like Paul Perrea, a 44-year-old electrical engineer hoping to teach high school physics, had to spend this past school year in less-than-desirable positions. Perrea says he’s taught high school math as a long-term sub and has had trouble finding a full-time position for 2004-05. ETS, for its part, is “very sorry” and is offering to reimburse the $115 it costs to take the test.

ETS’s biggest fans, the test-prep companies, are now gearing up for the new version of the SAT, which debuts in spring 2005. Although the addition of a written essay is, according to ETS, supposed to make these exams less “coachable,” Andy Lutz, program director at the Princeton Review, says that “the way that they’re grading writing and the way they test grammar are very formulaic.” Hence, test-prep giant Kaplan stresses the four P’s when preparing for essays: prompt, plan, produce, and proofread. And when all else fails, its experts urge students to tap into “information banks”—preprepared topic responses that can be applied to any question. This kind of approach has antitesting activists seeing red. Coachable exams, whether new or old, they argue, benefit only those who can afford test prep.

Cash is not something many high schoolers are short on these days. It seems that ATMs are popping up in schools so rapidly that one in every 200 students ages 12 to 15 has one within reach. Why? Well, one high school in Oregon makes $1 per transaction; at 140 transactions per month, it’ll be able to buy the machine in two years, then turn a profit. Plus, some educators feel the ATM is a real-world study in fiscal responsibility. And it doesn’t hurt that 17 percent of teens now have debit cards, up from 12 percent in 2000. But here’s the big advantage, according to Ed Little, a principal in Vancouver, Washington: “Far fewer students need to borrow money from me.”

—Rich Shea

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