Test Questions

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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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