Scoring Error Clouds Hiring Of Teachers

By Linda Jacobson — September 21, 2004 5 min read
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An incorrectly graded licensing exam for prospective teachers has stalled hiring in some places, sent school districts rummaging through employment records, and spawned at least one lawsuit so far.

The mistakes made by the Educational Testing Service that led thousands of teacher-candidates to believe they had failed the Praxis II test also have added to the debate over how much reliance educators and policymakers should place on standardized exams to make high-stakes decisions.

Still, the Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit company that gives the exam reports that those who have been informed about the scoring problem are happy that they passed and, said ETS spokesman Tom Ewing, are “doubly pleased” that they are getting refunds for the $115 testing fee.

That doesn’t placate Paul Perrea, a former engineer who began teaching math in a Cincinnati high school on a substitute license last year. He described the experience as a “horrible albatross.”

“You’ve got this scarlet F for failure,” he said.

Mr. Perrea, who still does not have a teaching contract for this fall, is one of 4,100 test-takers who were told earlier this month that they did indeed pass the Praxis II: Principles of Teaching and Learning test for grades 7-12.

Describing himself as someone who usually tests well, Mr. Perrea said he took his wife out to dinner after the test and told her he had just “written some of the most beautiful essays.”

He was also confident of his performance because he had passed other Praxis exams in physics, mathematics, and earth science.

The two-hour test covers such topics as students’ learning styles, interaction with children from multicultural backgrounds, and various educational theories. It includes essay questions that ask candidates how they would approach hypothetical teaching situations involving students with diverse needs.

According to Mr. Ewing of the ETS, it appeared that in two administrations of the exam—which is graded by practicing teachers in the Princeton area—the scores were lower than usual. But officials thought there were reasonable explanations for the differences.

Later investigation, however, showed that over the period from January 2003 to April of this year—in which the test was given nine times to about 40,000 people total—the essays were scored more rigorously than usual, even though scoring guidelines had not changed, Mr. Ewing said.

Those affected by the mistake range from 35 test-takers in Georgia to roughly 1,200 in Ohio. Eighteen states use the Praxis series of exams as part of their teacher-licensing requirements.

“I guess we have to put it down to the variability of human grading,” Mr. Ewing said.

‘Denied Access’

But Robert Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based organization that is critical of standardized-testing practices, said he wasn’t satisfied with the company’s explanations.

“There is still something here that doesn’t align,” he said. “I’m hoping this will come out in litigation. These people were denied access to their chosen profession.”

Already, the Berger and Montague law firm in Philadelphia has filed a lawsuit against the ETS, on behalf of Raffael Billet, a teacher in West Hazelton, Pa., and one of those affected by the scoring glitch.

According to her lawsuit, Ms. Billet’s failing score forced her to retake the test. Even though she passed on the second try, she was not hired by the 9,000-student Hazelton Area district until a couple of days before the 2003-04 school year started. As a result, she did not earn the seniority that she would have had if she had passed the first time.

The case, which has been granted class-action status, has been filed in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas, and a “case-management conference” has been scheduled for late August, according to Michael Fantini, Ms. Billet’s lawyer.

Although ETS officials say 4,100 people have been affected, Mr. Fantini said the number could be higher. “This case could expand once we take discovery from the company,” he said.

A Capacity Issue?

J.C. Benton, a spokesman for the Ohio education department, said that officials in his state were leaving it up to the testing company to get in touch with the teacher-candidates. He added that it was too soon to tell how such a situation might affect the hiring process.

But in the 268,000-student Clark County district in Nevada, which includes Las Vegas and is one of the fastest growing school systems in the nation, human-resource officials spent two days auditing the files of all the teachers who had been removed from their jobs during the time the scoring mistakes occurred.

“That was kind of intensive,” said Lina Gutierrez, the executive director of human resources for the district.

While it first appeared that more than 50 of the 119 people who thought they had failed the exam were working or seeking jobs in Clark County schools, Ms. Gutierrez said many of them ended up moving or taking other positions. After the review was conducted, it turned out that only four Clark County teachers had lost their jobs specifically because of their failing scores. They have since been reinstated.

Mr. Schaeffer of FairTest calls the scoring mistake just the latest sign that an overburdened testing industry is trying to keep up with the rising demands of testing teachers and K-12 students.

“Who examines the examiners?” he said. “Where is the capacity to deal with the tremendous volume increase?”

But Mr. Ewing said the incident does not show that a systemic problem exists. He also pointed out that the ETS has set standards of quality that other testing companies follow.

A new technical-audit committee has been formed to investigate why the scoring irregularities occurred, Mr. Ewing added.

The committee “is going to keep very close track of this particular test—kind of like double-extra quality control,” Mr. Ewing said. “The bottom line is we’re committed to doing what’s right with our teaching candidates.”

Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, a private Washington- based group that seeks to bolster the profession, said the scoring problem raises questions about the growing importance of standardized testing, for both teachers and students.

“This provides good caution against placing too heavy a reliance on a single test to determine the qualifications of a teacher to teach,” he said. “A single test isn’t going to give us the information we need.”

Mr. Ewing said no similar errors have cropped up on other Praxis exams. But the ETS has experienced problems involving some of its other tests in the past.

A version of this article appeared in the July 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Scoring Error Clouds Hiring Of Teachers

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