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Aspiring teachers in Massachusetts became the butt of jokes when more than half failed a new series of tests. But many are wondering if the tests themselves measure up.

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

Nager, 27, squeezed into a high school desk with a small 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 has befallen so many others since April, when 59 percent of the prospective teachers who took the exam failed. In order to get a license in the state, teacher-candidates must pass a communication and literacy exam, which evaluates reading and writing ability, and a subject test in their field.

The poor performance of aspiring Massachusetts teachers quickly became a national joke--fodder for Jay Leno, scolding newspaper columnists, and critics of public schools. What is less well-known is the story of the tests' tumultuous birth, a tale in which the friction between politics and public policy ignited a firestorm that has burned the Bay State's entire education community.

Perhaps it wasn't surprising that a teacher test would become a big story in Massachusetts, a pioneer in American public education and the home of dozens of distinguished colleges and universities. The test results cast the commonwealth's 62 teacher-preparation programs in a harsh light, exposing alarming failure rates at some.

What is more remarkable is the staying power of the test controversy. So far, it has claimed one interim education commissioner, provided a high-profile issue for a gubernatorial election, influenced state teacher policy, drawn threats of a class action, and sparked a backlash among academics who believe the tests themselves and their initial administration were flawed.

Candidates for licenses were told that 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 in setting the qualifying scores, creating public doubt and confusion.

Not everyone, however, believes that the results are unfortunate. John R. Silber, the chairman of the Massachusetts school board and the chancellor of Boston University, says the teacher test has had the "salutary effect" of exposing the "derisory" standards that pervade education schools.

The reading and writing 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 publicity and public ridicule of aspiring teachers--Speaker of the House Thomas M. Finneran, a Democrat, called those who flunked the tests "idiots"--has 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 V. Antonucci, who served as education commissioner until March, a month before the exam was first administered. "And that's wrong."

The Massachusetts Educator Certification Tests were a long time in coming.

In 1985, the state enacted a law requiring testing for teacher licensing--a measure that was promptly ignored. Teacher tests were required again in 1993, in the commonwealth's Education Reform Act, a $3.25 billion plan that set rigorous academic standards and required new tests for students. (The results of the first round of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System came out last month.)

Since the exams made their debut at a time of intense national concern over teacher quality, the results helped to focus public attention on teachers' scores.

But it was only after the current board was appointed by the governor in 1996 that the state got serious. National Evaluation Systems of Amherst, Mass., won a contract in October of last year to custom-design teacher tests. The result: a four-hour communication and literacy exam, plus a four-hour test in the subject the candidate wants to teach. There are more than 30 tests in all.

The tests would make Massachusetts the 44th state to screen prospective teachers. Because such exams made their debut at a time of intense national concern over teacher quality, the results helped to focus public attention on teachers' scores. They also turned up the pressure on education schools nationwide to see that their students pass the tests.

Many states use exams designed by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J. But California, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas, like Massachusetts, administer tests developed by National Evaluation Systems.

The company had six months to create the tests for Massachusetts before the first administration in April. In part, the test developers used a library of questions given to teachers in other states.

"We were on a fast track," Antonucci recalls. "We were really pushing this."

The former commissioner, who resigned Feb. 28 to become the president and chief executive officer of ICS Learning Systems in Scranton, Pa., says National Evaluation Systems officials told him they wanted to use the April and July rounds of testing to validate the tests. Under that scenario, prospective teachers would receive scores that districts could check before hiring them, but the state would wait to set its standards for licensure until the kinks were worked out. Such a process isn't unusual when new tests are introduced.

In January, the Massachusetts Department of Education informed candidates that merely taking--not passing--the first two rounds of the exam would satisfy the testing requirement and allow them to become licensed. While Antonucci was concerned about the arrangement, he deferred to the company's expertise, he says.

But Antonucci's interim successor, Frank W. Haydu III, an investor and former member of the state school board, worried that allowing all candidates to pass the test 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,' " Haydu recalls.

So on March 25, just before the April 4 testing date, the education department notified registered test-takers that their scores would count.

The about-face, coupled with the lack of a study guide, left many candidates feeling unprepared. At Salem State College, just 41.8 percent of 95 prospective teachers passed the entire exam in July. Clarke Fowler, an assistant professor of education there, complains: "They did their best to see that my students would do their worst."

Robert Schaeffer, the public education director at the Cambridge, Mass.-based Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, says legal precedent has established that candidates must have adequate notice to prepare for high-stakes tests, such as a licensing exam that determines whether they can teach. FairTest is putting together a class action to challenge the test.

But Silber and Edwin Delattre, the 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 tests were coming and would "count." Silber calls the information indicating otherwise in the January question-and-answer booklet "treason by the clerks" who tried to bypass the board by putting out false statements.

"There were people who felt as if the policy had been hither and yon," Delattre says, "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 administration of it.

To some critics, the content of the test is as troubling as the administration of it. Particularly odd is the fact that the communication and literacy test includes dictation. Stranger still was the passage used on the April test: a selection from the Federalist Papers. Prospective teachers had to listen to the 18th-century prose and write what they heard--a test of their spelling, punctuation, and capitalization skills.

The Massachusetts teacher exam is the only one Schaeffer has seen in some 13 years of advocacy on testing that included dictation. He ridicules the selection as "brilliant and fresh in the 1780s" and accuses Silber and Delattre of violating testing practices by suggesting the Federalist Papers be used.

But both board members say they gave the testing company a number of alternatives, which Delattre says 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, further infuriating critics of the tests.

"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 dictation portion of the test was the most visible flashpoint of the broader controversy over whether the test actually measured what teachers knew. Critics of the testing program--and they are legion in Massachusetts' higher education community--argue that the exam was not properly validated.

The tests 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 "doesn't give invalid tests," he says. The company plans to publish a full technical report next month.

The state education department also "stands behind the tests' reliability and validity," says Alan Safran, the agency's chief of staff. The department has held briefings for teacher-trainers to share test questions and answers, he notes, although some professors and deans still complain that they haven't gotten enough feedback on their students' performance to be helpful.

Walter Haney, a testing expert at Boston College's respected Center for the Study of Testing, says professional standards call for the test developer to produce a technical manual documenting the characteristics of a test before it's given.

Review by thousands of educators, while helpful, isn't the same thing, "especially when it's being made operational in a high-stakes context," he says. "In my view, [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, the complaints from higher education--"loaded with pretension and not competence"--miss the mark.

"Where did we decide, in order to validate exams in the English language of whether you can spell, write with correct grammar, and summarize an article with decent competence, that we have to go through an elaborate process of validation?" he asks.

As for the subject tests, Silber believes the mathematics and science tests are solid. But in broader areas like history, improvements can be made, he says.

Rep. Harold M. Lane Jr., the House chairman of the joint committee on education, the arts, and humanities, agrees. Lane, a Democrat who spent 20 years as a principal and has been heavily involved in the testing battle, would like to see an independent evaluation of the exam and its validity.

While the reading and writing tests seem reasonable, he says, the subject-matter tests "may be too broad."

Once the tests were given, setting the "cutoff scores" that would serve as the benchmark for passing them caused further turmoil.

The social studies test felt like the game Trivial Pursuit to Peter Kiang, an associate professor in the graduate college of education and Asian-American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. "There was some attempt to have a few questions related to Massachusetts' constitutional history in particular," Kiang says, "but beyond that, any possible question was the universe" being tested.

Kiang, who took (and passed) the test to know how to better prepare his social studies students, also worries that few prospective minority teachers sat for the tests, and that fewer still passed them.

Once the tests were given, setting the "cutoff scores" that would serve as the benchmark for passing them caused further turmoil.

The law calls for the commissioner of education to make the call, says Antonucci, who had put the process in motion. He says he now wishes he had called the full school board in for a meeting with the testing company because determining the passing scores was "such a controversial and important item."

Antonucci resigned before the matter was settled.

Haydu, who then became the interim state chief, says that he wasn't about to take total responsibility, as a noneducator, for setting the scores and that Silber wanted the board to vote on the issue.

Haydu and the department staff wanted to leave a little wiggle room and set a standard that would have flunked 44 percent, or about 800, of the April licensing candidates. The interim commissioner met with many educators, the governor, and other political leaders to prepare them for his proposed benchmark, which he called "a pretty large statement to make," but also a way to be fair on a brand-new test.

A panel of educators that reviewed the test had recommended setting a higher score, however. After extensive debate--during which Silber expressed strong reservations about going with the lower standard--the board voted 5-3 on June 22 in favor of Haydu's recommendation. The vote included the proviso that the higher cutoff score would take effect with the October test.

But when the board's action was perceived by the public as settling for a lower initial standard, the flak started flying. Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci, a Republican who was elected governor in his own right last month, asked the members to reconsider their decision.

At a special July 1 meeting, Cellucci urged the board to use the higher score immediately. "We must send a clear message that we are going to hold the line for higher standards," he said at the time. The vote was 6-1 in favor of the higher standard. Haydu resigned the same day. Cellucci went on to campaign for the testing of veteran teachers as well as novices.

While critics have decried the governor's involvement as evidence of political maneuvering, Silber says that the board already had the votes for the higher benchmark and that he was happy to ask members to vote again. Suggestions otherwise, he charges, emanate from "defensive teachers and defensive deans and presidents trying to cover themselves."

Antonucci, though, feels that the very public about-face by the board "set the whole testing program off down the wrong road."

And in an election year in which teacher quality and high standards were at center stage, the test issue was political dynamite.

Five days after the board reversed itself, the April test-takers received their scores. Under the higher standard, 59 percent failed some portion of the tests--an outcome that made national headlines. Those who needed to retake all or part of the exam had just a few days to get ready for the July 11 administration.

"Politics drove the system," complains Margaret McKenna, the president of Lesley College, a private institution in Cambridge that is the state's largest trainer of teachers.

She also faults Silber and political leaders for being so critical of the candidates who didn't pass the test.

The hand wringing over the poor passing rates on the tests obscures the fact that candidates didn't necessarily flunk all three parts.

"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."

Mary Brabeck, the dean of the education school at Boston College, contrasts the furor over the teacher tests with the deliberate way the state has prepared the public for the student-testing results. Last month, the education department released the 380 questions on the tests for students in grades 4, 8, and 10, which were administered last spring.

No such pains were taken with the teacher tests, although the state has since posted sample questions and information about the exam on its World Wide Web site.

"What I fear 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," Brabeck says.

That argument frustrates supporters of the tests, 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," Delattre says. "Failing them shows only that you are, thus far, incompetent in some respect that is essential to good teaching."

The hand wringing over the poor passing rates on the tests obscures the fact that candidates didn't necessarily flunk all three parts. In April, the first time the tests were given, 41 percent of test-takers passed the entire exam. But 70 percent passed the reading test, 59 percent passed the writing exam, and 51 percent passed the subject-matter tests.

Candidates for licensure can retake the portions of the exam they fail at no charge; those who retake either reading or writing have the advantage of a full four hours to complete the test.

In October, 55 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. Of second-time test-takers this fall, 60 percent passed reading, 44 percent passed writing, and 42 percent passed the subject tests. Only 8 percent of the second-timers passed all three portions of the test--from the small group that failed them all the first time--a figure close to what experts would expect from that group.

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

One prospective teacher who has serious doubts is Nancy Schmeing. A Fulbright scholar, Schmeing, 58, 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, her specialty, if she moved to Massachusetts from her home in Canada.

Despite her sterling academic background, Schmeing failed the reading portion of the communications and literacy test in July with a score of 59 out of a possible 100. On her second try, she passed it--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."

As the debate continues over the meaning of the scores, it seems that almost everyone in Massachusetts has drawn a different lesson.

Gov. Cellucci continues to call for testing veteran teachers, after unsuccessfully introducing a bill in July that would have done so. Stephen E. Gorrie, the president of the 84,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, says the union will "vigorously oppose" any such move. Such a measure is considered unlikely to pass the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature.

As the debate continues over the meaning of the scores, it seems that almost everyone in Massachusetts has drawn a different lesson.

The Massachusetts Federation of Teachers released a position paper this fall calling for strengthening preparation, recruitment, and induction for teachers. Kathleen Kelley, the president of the 20,000-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, is frustrated that "sound bites," not collaboration, seem to be driving policy in the state.

The education department, under the current interim commissioner, David P. Driscoll, is working on the "12-62 plan," named for its emphasis on enticing people from grade school through retirement into teaching. 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 people who want to teach, providing scholarships and bonuses for top teacher-candidates, and creating a corps of teachers certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Many education schools are busy taking a hard look at themselves and their candidates. At Salem State, prospective teachers must now have higher SAT scores, which is likely to cut the number able to enroll in education programs, says Fowler, the assistant education professor.

Boston University has started giving literacy tests to all its students, Delattre says, and has turned up evidence of grade inflation and problems with transfer students' skills. In July, 18 of the 24 BU students who took all three sections of the exam passed.

"Whatever the inadequacy of the tests, there's enough information to be drawn to tell every teacher-preparation program in the state, 'You're not good enough,' " Delattre says.

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 proposed rule that would require education schools to ensure that 80 percent of their students pass the state tests, or face the possibility of closure. Delattre says the language of the proposal is now "hopelessly confused."

Meanwhile, Sandy Nager, the anxious 27-year-old who sat for the test last fall, passed despite finding the English exam very challenging. She now hopes to teach middle school English.

"It was a relief," says Nager. "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.' "

To Whitney Sterling, who is spending six months in Massachusetts to earn his principal license before heading back to Germany to run a boarding school, the entire debate has been disheartening to watch. Sterling was required to take the teacher test, and believes the fallout this year was very damaging.

"It's basically saying, 'You guys are dummies.' This is not an approach that says, 'Let's be professionals, let's build together a strong community of educators.' "

Certainly, the test requirement cast a pall over Danielle Pelletier's entrance into teaching. The Salem State elementary education graduate failed the test twice before passing it in October, losing a job offer in the process. In particular, Pelletier, 24, found the dictation portion difficult. "I was completely panicked the first time," she says. "I've always had problems in courses taking notes."

Pelletier worked as a substitute in Lawrence, a district of 12,000 students outside Boston that is operating under state oversight because of chronic low student achievement and management problems. Finally, she got her own 1st grade classroom in mid-November at Arlington Elementary School in Lawrence.

"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."

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 30-35

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as Test Questions
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