Testing Awaits Staffs in Low-Achieving Schools

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The date June 12 might as well be circled in black on the calendar at Princeville Montessori Elementary School in rural Edgecombe County, N.C. On that day, Principal Nancy A. Davis and 17 of her teachers are scheduled to sit for a general-knowledge test--their reward for working in one of the state's 15 lowest-performing schools.

Ms. Davis, who calls the upcoming exam "purely a punitive measure that's counterproductive," says the looming tests have distracted and demoralized the staff members at the 340-student school. Three-fourths of its students, who are in preschool through 3rd grade, are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

The mood is no better at many of the other schools whose faculties have been singled out for the testing by state law. Even the state school board, which is required to administer the exams to teachers in low-performing schools, is unhappy about having to do so.

The North Carolina Association of Educators is threatening to file a lawsuit to try to stop the tests. And the 247 teachers, counselors, principals, media specialists, and other certified staff members who must be tested are talking about boycotting the exam. State officials have warned, however, that teachers who do so could lose their licenses.

John I. Wilson, the executive director of the National Education Association affiliate, calls the testing "bad policy" that will further dissuade qualified teachers from working in schools that already have high attrition rates and dismal working conditions.

"You're running out the missionaries when you do that," he said of the tests. "This is nothing but a political slap at these schools."

Inadequate Test?

The general-knowledge tests are required by the Excellent Schools Act, enacted by the state legislature last year. The measure gives teachers salary increases in exchange for higher standards.

Rep. Gene G. Arnold, a Republican, inserted the testing provision in the House version of the bill and refused to remove it, despite a fight in a conference committee that held up the legislation for two months. Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., one of the nation's leading proponents of teacher professionalism, didn't support the testing provision.

Mr. Arnold said last week that the growing discomfort over the pending test hasn't changed his mind. He pointed out that the law allows teachers to take the test three times and to receive extra coursework or other training at state expense. If a teacher fails after those tries, the state will begin dismissal proceedings. "You don't teach in North Carolina," Mr. Arnold said. "Go screw up some other kids' life in another state."

Originally, Mr. Arnold said, he was hoping to test teachers' expertise and presentation skills in class. But the state education department--after seeking to purchase tests from the state of California and the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J.--had to settle for buying a general-knowledge test from the state of Florida.

The North Carolina school board this month dropped the mathematics portion of the test and moved the test date from May 16 to June 12. The change will allow teachers to be tested during their workday, but also was seen as giving lawmakers time to rescind the provision during their May session.

Members of the board last month unanimously endorsed asking the legislature to re-examine the test requirement and its effect on the state's accountability program. Current law calls for testing all certified staff members in low-performing schools by the 1999-2000 school year. This year, the state has 122 schools with that label, based on their students' scores on a state test.

As matters now stand, the 247 educators will take the reading and essay portions of the Florida College-Level Academic Skills Test, or CLAST. Teachers who passed the Praxis I exam to enter an education school and passed the Praxis II licensing test after July 1, 1996, or who had previously passed the Florida CLAST, are exempt from the general-knowledge testing. Marketed by ETS, the Praxis tests are widely used.

Stressful Year

The test will cap a stressful academic year for teachers in the 15 schools, which have been assigned assistance teams under North Carolina's accountability system, known as the ABCs of Public Education.

In addition to providing targeted help, the program gives "incentive awards" of $1,500 per certified staff member to schools that meet specified performance standards.

Members of the assistance teams, made up of teachers and administrators recruited by the state education department from across the state, already have evaluated teachers in the schools and identified 53 teachers who need remediation, Rep. Arnold said. That figure, he said, proves the state is "on the right track" with testing the rest.

Precisely because their schools have received such scrutiny, some teachers feel the general-knowledge testing is redundant.

"They're not even trusting their own assistance teams," argued Elizabeth Kath, a teacher at Poe Montessori Elementary School in Raleigh. All the teachers in her building, she said, passed their evaluations with flying colors.

And the general-knowledge test itself won't provide lawmakers with information about teachers' professional practice, she said.

John Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a research and policy organization based in Raleigh, predicted that the state will end up mired in litigation and abandon the tests.

The legislature is now considering ways to provide incentives for teachers to work in troubled schools, which Mr. Dornan said face "staggering" turnover rates among teachers. "This personnel issue is moving way up the ladder of importance," he said.

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