Crash Test Dummies

By Ann Bradley — January 01, 1999 17 min read
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When Sandy Nager arrived at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School this fall to take the Massachusetts teacher test, the place was swarming with television cameras. Reporters buttonholed test-takers as they entered the building. Critics of the test distributed fliers. A 58-year-old Fulbright scholar gave interviews before heading inside to retake the exam, which she had failed earlier.

Nager, who is 27, squeezed into a high school desk with a cramped writing surface and squinted against the sun pouring through the windows. She was determined to fight off her nerves and do her best. Above all, she wanted to avoid the humiliation that had befallen so many others since April, when 59 percent of the prospective teachers who took the test failed. In order to get a license in the state, teacher candidates must pass the exam, which actually consists of three separate tests covering reading, writing, and the subject area in which the candidate plans to teach.

The poor performance of the aspiring Massachusetts teachers had quickly become a national joke--fodder for Jay Leno, scolding newspaper columnists, and critics of public schools. Less well-known is the story of the test’s tumultuous birth, a tale in which friction between politics and public policy ignited a firestorm that has burned the Bay State’s education community. So far, the controversy has prompted the resignation of a top state education official, stoked a gubernatorial candidate’s bid for office, cast a harsh light on the commonwealth’s 62 teacher-preparation programs, and given the issue of teacher quality new urgency.

It has also drawn threats of a class action lawsuit and sparked a backlash among academics who believe the test itself is flawed and that its initial administration was botched. Teacher candidates were told their scores on the first two rounds of testing wouldn’t count, only to learn otherwise days before the tests were given. There was no study guide until this fall. And the state school board changed its mind on the qualifying scores, creating public doubt and confusion.

Not everyone, however, believes the results are unfortunate. John Silber, chairman of the Massachusetts school board and chancellor of Boston University, says the test has had the “salutary effect” of exposing the “derisory” standards that pervade education schools. The reading and writing portion of the test, he asserts, “was an examination that a high school graduate ought to be able to pass. The idea that a college graduate can’t pass it means that the college degree is fraudulent.”

Others fear, though, that the negative press and public ridicule of the prospective teachers--Speaker of the House Thomas Finneran, a Democrat, called those who flunked the test “idiots"--have damaged the teaching profession. “I’d think twice if I were a teacher candidate in a school of education and I wanted to come to Massachusetts and take that test,” says Robert Antonucci, who set the teacher-testing program in motion as the state’s education commissioner in the months leading up to the first exam. “And that’s wrong.’'

The Massachusetts Educator Certification Tests were a long time coming. In 1985, the state enacted a law requiring that pro-spective teachers pass a test to receive a license--a measure that was promptly ignored. Teacher testing was required again in 1993 as part of a massive school-reform plan that set rigorous academic standards and mandated new tests for students.

But it wasn’t until 1996, when the current state board of education was seated after the November elections, that the state got serious. In October 1997, the state hired National Evaluation Systems of Amherst, Massachusetts, to custom-design a teacher test. Forty-three other states screen prospective teachers, and many use exams designed by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey. But some--including California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas--administer tests developed by National Evaluation Systems.

The company had six months to create the test for Massachusetts before the first scheduled administration last April, and it drew on a library of questions given to teachers in other states. “We were on a fast track,” Antonucci recalls. “We were really pushing this.”

Antonucci says officials for National Evaluation Systems told him they wanted to use the April and July rounds of testing to validate the test. Under that scenario, prospective teachers would receive scores that districts could check during their hiring process, but the state would wait to set its standards for licensure--its cutoff scores for the test--until the kinks were worked out. Such a process isn’t unusual when new tests are introduced.

Though Antonucci was concerned about the arrangement, he deferred to the company’s expertise. In January, the Massachusetts department of education informed candidates in a question-and-answer booklet that merely taking the exam in April or July would satisfy the testing requirement and allow them to become licensed.

But it wasn’t long before the department was reversing course. In February, as test preparations continued, Antonucci resigned as state education commissioner to become president and chief executive officer of ICS Learning Systems. Frank Haydu III, an investor and former member of the state board of education, was named interim commissioner, and Haydu had different ideas about the test’s importance. He worried that awarding licenses to candidates for just showing up would send the wrong message. “I said, ‘Listen, you can’t just sign your name or take the test and show you’re illiterate and have us allow you to be in the classroom,’ ” he recalls.

So on March 25, less than two weeks before the April 4 testing date, the education department notified registered test-takers that their scores would count after all. The about-face, coupled with the lack of a study guide, left many candidates feeling unprepared. “They did their best to see that my students would do their worst,” complains Clarke Fowler, an assistant professor of education at Salem State College.

Robert Schaeffer, public education director at the Cambridge-based Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, says legal precedent has established that candidates must have adequate notice to prepare for a high-stakes test like a teacher-licensing exam. FairTest is putting together a class action lawsuit to challenge the Massachusetts test.

But Silber and Edwin Delattre, dean of Boston University’s school of education and a member of the state board, argue that education schools and their students knew for years that the test was coming and that it would “count.” Silber blames the question-and-answer booklet indicating otherwise on “treason by the clerks"; education department staff bypassed the board and put out false statements, he claims. Adds Delattre, “There were people who felt as if the policy had been hither and yon when, in fact, it had never been hither and yon. By the lights of the board, it had been straightforward since November 1996.”

To some critics, the content of the test is as troubling as the way it was administered. They find it odd, for example, that the exam includes dictation. Stranger still, the passage used for dictation on the April test was a selection from the Federalist Papers. Prospective teachers had to listen to the 18th-century prose and then write what they heard--a test of their spelling, punctuation, and capitalization skills.

Schaeffer of FairTest says that during his 13 years of testing advocacy he has seen no other teacher test that includes dictation. He ridicules the selection, calling it “brilliant and fresh in the 1780s,” and he accuses Silber and Delattre of violating common testing practices by suggesting that the Federalist Papers be used.

But both board members dismiss such allegations, saying they gave the testing company a number of alternatives. According to Delattre, these included portions of Life and Death in Shanghai, The Life of Helen Keller, and Letter From Birmingham Jail. Furthermore, Silber says, Massachusetts students are required to read the Federalist Papers to graduate from high school.

The board chairman ridiculed candidates’ spelling on the dictation portion of the exam in a July opinion piece in the New York Times. “How could educated people fail to copy what they heard?” Silber wrote. “It wasn’t easy, but scores of applicants managed, recording broken sentences and curious new spellings such as ‘improbally,’ ‘corupt,’ ‘integraty,’ ‘bouth’ (meaning both), ‘bodyes,’ and ‘relif.’ ”

The fight over the dictation portion of the test was one skirmish in a broader battle over whether the exam actually measures what teachers should know. State education officials and officials for National Evaluation Systems reject charges that the test was not valid. The various parts of the test were vetted by more than 5,000 educators to make sure they matched the commonwealth’s objectives, says Dominic Slowey, a spokesman for the testing company. National Evaluation Systems, he explains, “doesn’t give invalid tests.” Likewise, Alan Safran, the education department’s chief of staff, says the agency “stands behind the tests’ reliability and validity.”

But Walter Haney, a testing expert at Boston College’s respected Center for the Study of Testing, says that professional standards call for the test developer to produce a technical manual documenting the characteristics of a test before it’s given--something National Evaluation Systems did not do. Review by thousands of educators, while helpful, isn’t the same thing, he says, especially for a high-stakes exam. “In my view,” he adds, the Massachusetts exam “was developed so quickly and without any reasonable pilot-testing that you’ve got to wonder about the technical quality of the examination.”

To Silber, such complaints miss the mark. He argues that an exam to determine whether someone can spell, write with correct grammar, and summarize an article hardly needs “an elaborate process of validation.” As for the tests covering teachers’ knowledge of their subject matter, Silber believes the mathematics and science versions are solid, but he concedes that the tests in broader subjects like history can be improved.

Peter Kiang, an associate professor in the graduate college of education and Asian American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, took--and passed-- the test to know how to better prepare his students. The social studies test, he says, felt like the game Trivial Pursuit. “There was some attempt to have a few questions related to Massachusetts’ constitutional history,” he says, but overall, the test was so broad that the universe of possible questions seemed limitless.

A fter the April administration of the test, a new controversy brewed over the question of where to set the “cutoff scores” or passing grade. Massachusetts law requires that the commissioner of education decide the cutoff scores. But Antonucci resigned before the matter was settled. Haydu, who became interim commissioner after Antonucci’s departure, says that as a noneducator, he wasn’t about to take full responsibility for setting the cutoff scores. Besides, he adds, Silber wanted the board to vote on the matter.

Haydu and his staff leaned toward a standard that would have flunked 44 percent, or about 800, of the April licensing candidates. The interim commissioner met with educators, the governor, and other political leaders to prepare them for his proposed benchmark, which he called “a pretty large statement,” but also one that he felt was fair to the teacher candidates given the brand-new test.

Meanwhile, a panel of educators that had reviewed the test recommended a higher cutoff score. But after extensive debate--during which Silber expressed strong reservations about adopting the lower standard--the board voted 5-3 on June 22 in favor of Haydu’s recommendation. The board’s approval included the proviso that the lower cutoff score would apply to the April and July tests, with the higher standard taking effect with the October test.

Public reaction to the decision was quick and negative. The board, critics complained, had settled for too low a standard. Immediately, acting Governor Paul Cellucci, a Republican who had to win a November election to remain in office, asked members to reconsider their decision. At a special July 1 meeting of the board, Cellucci urged the board to apply the higher score to the April test. “We must send a clear message that we are going to hold the line for higher standards,” he said. The board voted 6-1 in favor of the higher standard. Haydu resigned the same day in protest. And Cellucci went on to campaign and win office on a platform that included the testing of veteran teachers as well as novices.

Critics have decried Cellucci’s involvement as evidence of political maneuvering. Silber, however, says that the board favored the higher benchmark before the governor’s intervention and that he was happy to ask members for a second vote. Suggestions otherwise, he charges, emanate from “defensive teachers and defensive deans and presidents trying to cover themselves.”

Five days after the board reversed itself, the April test-takers received their scores. Under the higher standard, 59 percent failed at least one part of the test. Those who needed to retake all or part of the exam had just a few days to get ready for the July 11 administration.

In the wake of the dust-up over the cutoff scores, there was a lot of second-guessing and criticism. Antonucci, the former education commissioner, says he now wishes that he had called the whole state board of education in for a meeting with the testing company to help make the decision. The board’s about-face on where to set the cutoff scores, he says, “set the whole testing program off down the wrong road.”

Others see more malevolent forces at work. “Politics drove the system,” complains Margaret McKenna, president of Lesley College, a private institution in Cambridge that is the state’s largest trainer of teachers. McKenna also faults Silber and political leaders for being so critical of the candidates who didn’t pass the test. “To do that for thousands of people who took a test that no one had seen or prepared for, where the rules were changed and the passing rate arbitrarily set, seemed to be so irresponsible,” she says. “These are real human beings.”

“What I fear,” says Mary Brabeck, dean of the education school at Boston College, “is that the test has become the single measure for assessing competence to teach, and basic literacy is not enough to put someone in a classroom.”

That argument frustrates supporters of the test, who point out that the exam has a narrow but essential public purpose: ensuring that teachers have at least minimum knowledge and skills. “These tests don’t show that anybody will be a good teacher,” says Delattre of the state board. “Failing them shows only that you are, thus far, incompetent in some respect that is essential to good teaching.”

But all the hand-wringing over the poor pass rates obscures the fact that candidates didn’t necessarily flunk all three parts of the exam. In April, only 41 percent of test-takers passed. But 70 percent passed the reading test, 59 percent passed the writing test, and 51 percent passed the subject-matter test.

Candidates for licensure can retake the parts of the exam that they fail at no charge; those who retake either the reading or writing test have the advantage of four hours to complete it, the time normally allotted for both tests.

In October, when the third round of the exam was given, scores improved. Fifty-five percent of the first-time test-takers passed the entire exam. But 81 percent passed reading, 75 percent passed writing, and 68 passed their subject tests.

Meanwhile, 60 percent of the second-time test-takers passed reading, 44 percent passed writing, and 42 percent passed the subject tests. A relatively small number of the second-timers taking the October test had failed all three parts of the exam the first time; of that group, only 8 percent passed--a figure close to what experts would expect from that group.

Haney, the Boston College testing expert, has joined with two other critics of the exam to form the Ad Hoc Committee To Test the Teacher Test. They distributed fliers at the October administration, asking the test-takers to provide them with copies of their scores and results from other similar examinations. The committee plans to compare the scores to see if the failure rates on the Massachusetts test make sense.

One prospective teacher who has serious doubts is 58-year-old Nancy Schmeing. A Fulbright scholar, Schmeing holds a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is a free-lance translator of German technical documents. She took the exam hoping to become licensed to teach physics.

Despite her sterling academic background, Schmeing failed the reading portion of the test in July. On her second try, she passed--but not before holding a press conference outside the Cambridge high school to blast the test. “Not being able to read is out of the question,” she says. “My guess is that the way I would have thought logical was not the way the test answerers selected certain answers.”

Though the controversy over the test and its validity continues, the spectacle of so many teacher candidates failing a seemingly easy test has generated a new debate: how to improve the quality of the teaching corps.

Governor Cellucci continues to call for testing veteran teachers. But such a measure is not likely to pass the predominantly Democratic legislature. Stephen Gorrie, president of the 84,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, says his union will “vigorously oppose” any such plan.

This fall, the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, the state’s second-largest teachers’ union, released a position paper calling for strengthening preparation, recruitment, and induction for teachers. MFT President Kathleen Kelley says she is frustrated that “sound bites” rather than collaboration seem to be driving teacher policy in the state.

Meanwhile, the state education department is working on a series of initiatives aimed at promoting career interest in the profession among people of all ages. The package, formulated in response to the test results, includes setting up Future Educators of America clubs, expanding the state’s loan-reimbursement program for aspiring teachers, providing scholarships and bonuses for top teacher-candidates, and creating a corps of nationally certified teachers.

Schools of education in the state are getting perhaps the most scrutiny, some of it from within the schools themselves. At Salem State, prospective teachers must now have higher SAT scores to get into training programs. Boston University, where Delattre is dean of the education school, has started giving literacy tests to all its students. “Whatever the inadequacy of the tests,” says the state board member, “there’s enough information to be drawn to tell every teacher-preparation program in the state, ‘You’re not good enough.’ ”

Silber goes further: “We’re not going to have a successful reform of education until we destroy the monopoly of teacher colleges in the certification of teachers. Bright people, by and large, avoid schools of education.”

State policymakers are wrestling with a proposal that would shut down schools of education that have failure rates higher than 20 percent on the teacher exam. Schools would have to pass 80 percent of their students or face the possibility that they would be closed. Delattre, however, says that the current language of the proposal is “hopelessly confused.”

Meanwhile, Sandy Nager, the anxious 27-year-old who sat for the test in October, learned that she passed all three parts, though she struggled on the English subject test. “It was a relief,” she says. “I was concerned because my father is a trustee of a private school in Maine and was reading about these tests and saying, ‘This is terrible that all these people are failing.’ ” Nager now hopes to teach middle school English.

Many educators say the controversy has given the profession a black eye. Whitney Sterling, who is spending six months in Massachusetts to earn his principals’ license before heading back to Germany to run a boarding school, says the entire debate has been disheartening. Sterling was required to take the teacher test, and he believes the fallout was damaging. “It’s basically saying, ‘You guys are dummies,’ ” he argues. “This is not an approach that says, ‘Let’s be professionals, let’s build together a strong community of educators.’ ”

Certainly, the test requirement casts a pall over the career plans of those who struggled to pass. Danielle Pelletier, a Salem State elementary education graduate, flunked twice before passing the exam in October and lost a job offer in the process. The 24-year-old found the dictation portion most difficult. “I was completely panicked the first time,” she says. “I’ve always had problems in courses taking notes.”

Until she passed the test, Pelletier was substituting in Lawrence, a district of 12,000 students outside Boston that is operating under state oversight because of low student achievement. She finally got her own 1st grade classroom there in mid-November. “I’m not the smartest person in the world--an honor student or a brainiac--but I can teach,” she says. “I’m very motivated.”


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