Education

Draft Would Not Order Written Tests for Aides

By Julie Blair — November 27, 2002 5 min read
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Paraprofessionals could prove they meet the qualification standards in the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 without taking a written assessment, according to preliminary guidelines released by the Department of Education this month.

Observations and portfolios could be used alone or in combination with standardized tests to gauge the abilities of teachers’ aides who are covered by the law, the 11-page document says, allowing options that many state officials greeted with relief.

The department recommends, however, that any evaluations used be equivalent in difficulty to systems designed to measure the knowledge and skills of second-year college students. The evaluations also should be reliable, valid, and document each participant’s performance, it says.

“Title I Paraprofessionals: Draft Non-Regulatory Guidance” is available from the Department of Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“The Education Department has provided us flexibility,” said B.J. Gibson, the assistant education commissioner for state and federal student initiatives in Texas. “I think many paraprofessionals will see this as an opportunity they haven’t had before.”

But some critics worry that the bar is too high, because it requires college-level performance for teachers’ aides on assessments.

“This wasn’t what was intended by Congress,” Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association—which represents 344,000 paraprofessionals, as well 2.3 million others in education—said of the evaluation standards in the document issued Nov. 15. The guidelines are “not realistic” and, if followed, will perpetuate a shortage of paraprofessionals in many communities around the country, he contended.

That’s because many teachers’ aides hold only high school diplomas or General Educational Development credentials, the minimum requirements in many states, Mr. Packer said. It is unreasonable to test them on material for which they have no background, he said.

One million paraprofessionals work in K-12 schools, but only a relative handful who provide instruction in core academic subjects and work in schools receiving Title I funding are required to meet the new standards laid out in the No Child Left Behind Act.

The affected paraprofessionals—or aides—provide tutoring, assist with classroom management, and act as translators, among other duties. Core academic subjects include English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, the arts, history, and geography, the law states.

Under the law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, such paraprofessionals who were hired before Jan. 8, 2002, must meet the new requirements by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

They must do one of the following: complete two years of study at an institution of higher education, earn an associate’s degree, or pass muster on a “rigorous” state or local assessment while demonstrating the ability to assist in instruction in reading/language arts, writing, and mathematics. The law requires those hired on or after that date to have met the mandates before they begin working.

Preparing Assessments

The draft guidelines released this month aim to cut through the law’s legalese while providing answers to frequently asked questions, said Cheri Pierson Yecke, the director of teacher quality and public school choice for the Education Department. They are not binding, however, and some states may choose to ignore the suggestions, she said.

She said the document would be expanded over the next several months and still requires a stamp of approval from Secretary of Education Rod Paige to become final.

The guidelines define the term “paraprofessional,” as it is used in the law, and outline what is required of such school employees, the ways they can be assessed, and the funding available to help aides meet the new mandates.

Most notable, state officials say, is the explanation of paraprofessional assessments. Many officials had worried that they would be forced to use only paper-and-pencil standardized exams to gauge aides’ capabilities. The officials say multiple measures are the best way to make such an evaluation, arguing that the skills used in such jobs are so complex that they cannot be fleshed out in a written exam.

Ohio will offer school districts several options and has already piloted a paraprofessional test written by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, said Marilyn Braatz, a spokeswoman for the Ohio education department.

“They’ll have to decide which is the best way to qualify,” she said. “We don’t have a whole lot of associate-level programs for paraprofessionals, so we’re encouraging our institutions of higher education to add such programs,” she added.

The Buckeye State is one of 29 that are readying ETS exams, said Ines Bosworth, who helped develop a paraprofessional test for the company.

Nebraska is not among them, but the state will provide two, three, and even four types of assessments for paraprofessionals, said Doug Christensen, the state commissioner of education there.

Still, he called the federal guidelines too prescriptive.

“We’re going to have some real problems with this,” he said. “I don’t know any rural states for which this will be easy. We need to get to those standards, but we want to do it our way.”

Paraprofessionals make between $5 and $7 an hour in Nebraska, and even if they could afford to pay for college courses, few rural communities offer the ones they would need, Mr. Christensen said.

Moreover, he said, standardized assessments and other types of evaluations are expensive and time-consuming to develop. And the aides who want to take the exams will need substantial professional development to pass, he added, as many don’t have the backgrounds necessary to do well on a college-level exam.

Such situations will perpetuate a paraprofessional shortage, predicted Evelyn B. Dandy, a professor of education at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., who monitors trends relating to paraprofessionals. No national data on paraprofessional shortages exist, though state officials individually report that those shortages are common in rural communities.

The new requirements “will be a deterrent to the profession,” Ms. Dandy said. She added that aides who want to work in urban, rural, and impoverished communities are most likely to lack the qualifications needed. Many who would have otherwise applied for such jobs will no longer do so, she said.

But some see the draft standards as an opportunity, said Silvia E. Pope, a veteran aide at Sweetwater Elementary School in Hickory, N.C., who works with bilingual students.

Ms. Pope said she wouldn’t have enrolled in a community college on her own after 18 years on the job, but now is looking forward to continuing her education, which is being paid for with a grant.

“I’m sure there will be things that will help me in doing my job,” she said. “You can never quit learning.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2002 edition of Education Week as Draft Would Not Order Written Tests for Aides

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