Massachusetts To Put Math Teachers to the Test

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The Massachusetts state school board last week declared that math teachers in schools where students repeatedly fail state tests will be required to take tests themselves.

The board unanimously approved regulations that will force secondary school mathematics teachers to take exams as part of their recertification process if more than 30 percent of regular education students in their school fail the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System and if the school is not meeting its goals for lowering the failure rate. The policy is believed to be the first of its kind to target teachers for a single subject.

"This is something we can do now that can have a positive effect on teaching in the classroom," said James A. Peyser, the chairman of the state board and the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank. "We need to take this action now because of the pending arrival of high-stakes testing."

Lawsuit Anticipated

Last year, 53 percent of 10th graders and 40 percent of 8th graders failed the math section of the MCAS. The class of 2003, which takes the MCAS next spring, must pass the English and math tests to earn a diploma. The failure rates on the math tests are higher than in English.

State officials said they will not know until this fall how many teachers will be forced into taking tests. By then, they will have results from the MCAS exams being given this spring and will identify schools with high-failure rates that also are not meeting the progress goals set by the state's accountability system.

The state teachers' unions, however, intend to file a lawsuit seeking to stop the state from forcing teachers to take a test, which the state education commissioner has yet to select.

The suit will likely allege that the state board exceeded its authority by approving a policy similar to ones that the state legislature rejected in two consecutive sessions.

"It's illegal and unnecessary, and it will drive good teachers out of the profession," said Stephen E. Gorrie, the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a 90,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association.

More To Come

Massachusetts may be the only state that requires teachers to take content tests based on the students' failure rates, but others may jump on the bandwagon, according to Kathy Christie, a policy analyst for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

The debate over teacher quality is raising questions about teachers' content knowledge, Ms. Christie said, and state policymakers will be searching for ways to judge what teachers know about the subjects they are teaching. "What's going to fall out of the debate is some policies that address that directly," she said.

But, like Massachusetts, states are bound to face opposition if they try to enforce new testing requirements on existing teachers. In the face of a teacher boycott two years ago, North Carolina legislators revoked a law that would have required teachers from 15 low-performing schools to undergo testing. ("N.C. Lawmakers Revoke Teacher-Testing Plan," June 17, 1998.)

In Massachusetts, teachers organized against the new tests, testifying at five hearings that the tests are "another example of teacher bashing," according to a memo that the state's education commissioner sent to the school board. The teachers threatened to boycott if they are required to take the new test.

"What we really need is quality professional development and resources for teachers," Mr. Gorrie said in an interview. "That's where they need to be focusing on rather than testing."

But Mr. Peyser said principals need to have basic information about a teacher's knowledge before they can approve a professional-development plan that addresses the teacher's needs.

Under the regulations adopted May 23, a teacher in one of the failing schools must take a math test before his or her principal will approve a professional-development plan. Without completing a valid plan, a teacher will lose certification when it comes up for renewal.

End Run?

Because the new policy is limited to defining what a teacher needs to do to be recertified, Mr. Peyser said he is confident that it will be upheld in state court.

But the teachers see the decision of the board, which is appointed by Gov. Paul Cellucci, as an end run around the Democrat-controlled state legislature.

Mr. Cellucci, a Republican, proposed testing math teachers in his 1998 campaign, but failed to win approval from the state legislature.

Vol. 19, Issue 38, Pages 16, 18

Published in Print: May 31, 2000, as Massachusetts To Put Math Teachers to the Test
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