Teaching-Test Plans Greeted With Shock in Bay State

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Nervous anticipation gave way to outrage earlier this month when aspiring teachers taking Massachusetts' first-ever certification exam learned--they say at the last minute--that passing the test would be a requirement to work in the state.

The two-part exam, administered to about 2,000 prospective teachers in two four-hour sessions April 4, is part of the state's effort to raise teaching standards. The exam includes a "communication and literacy" portion and a section covering a teacher's specific area of study.

Initially, college officials and test-takers say, the state education department said the first two tests--another test will be administered July 11--would not count, but would be used to establish what constitutes a passing score for future tests.

But in a March 25 letter, the department issued a "clarification" of that policy, stating that prospective teachers would have to pass even the first round of exams. Regardless of what department staff members have told students and college professors, that has been the policy since the state school board adopted the certification requirements in November 1996, department officials maintain.

"All test takers--including those who proceed to take the test in April--will need to achieve a qualifying score in order to be eligible for certification. This is a test which has consequences," acting state Superintendent Frank W. Haydu III said in a statement. "This was entirely consistent with the message that was conveyed to higher education institutions and candidates in November 1996."

College officials, even while supporting the high-stakes exams, say that the state's clarification has caused confusion and undue stress among test-takers.

'Tremendous Anxiety'

Helen Guttentag, who chairs the education department at Simmons College in Boston, said that, until three weeks ago, state officials had conveyed both in writing and in briefings that the first round of tests would not count. A question-and-answer booklet on the tests distributed by the education department this year, for example, noted that teaching candidates who took the certification exams April 4 and July 11 of this year "will satisfy the testing requirement automatically."

"This [first test has] caused a tremendous amount of anxiety and confusion and anger among students," Ms. Guttentag said. "While I highly support the state's dedication to increased standards, including teaching standards, the process this year has generated a lot of bad effects."

In addition to the fracas over the passing policy, she and others complain that students were not given study guides or a good description of the tests in time to prepare.

"The bottom line is, we want the best in classrooms, and, as an organization, we've supported certification testing," said Stephen Gorrie, the acting president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate. "But we're very upset with the [education] department's breach of faith."

"I think that there should be some accommodations made--and I'm not sure what--so that no one is shut out of position because of poor communication on behalf of the department staff," he said.

Those who fail the April test, department officials said, can retake it in July at no charge.

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  • The Massachusetts Department of Education's Web site contains several links relevant to the state's teacher tests, including a statement from Frank W. Haydu III, the state's interim education commissioner, a series of questions and answers about the tests, and clarifications about specific points.
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