New Test Probes Superintendents' Leadership Skills

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The first national licensing examination for superintendents made its debut last week, sending a message that instructional leadership is the backbone of the job.

The School Superintendent Assessment was administered Oct. 21 to about 100 graduate students in Missouri, where people who want credentials to be local superintendents must pass the test.

Creators and supporters of the test said it reflects an emerging consensus that administrators must focus on student learning, rather than simply management issues.

"The belief is that we're going to hold kids accountable for what they learn, and teachers accountable for what they teach," said Neil Shipman, a consultant and former education professor who coordinated the writing of the exam, "so then we also need to be looking at school leadership and see if they're creating an environment in which teachers can teach and kids can learn."

The exam was prepared by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., under a contract with the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium. The consortium, a project of the Washington-based Council of Chief State Schools Officers, created a set of standards for administrators in 1996 that also undergirds a national test for principals.

Missouri and North Carolina, two of five states that helped pay for development of the exam, gave it as a pilot test last year. The Tar Heel state is one of about 20 states that have inquired about using the test as a licensing tool. Some states, such as Texas, paid for initial parts of the exam but have yet to adopt it.

Today, states typically require superintendent candidates to have graduate-level coursework in educational administration.

Hopes for Change

Although the test is in use now by just one state, its proponents have big hopes for the exam and the attitudes it reflects. One is that it will push colleges and universities to devise new and better ways to train school leaders.

"The center stage of this profession has to be education, has to be teaching and learning," said Joseph Murphy, the president of the Ohio Principals Leadership Academy in Columbus. "The universities are going to have to respond to that."

Mr. Murphy, a professor at Ohio State University, chaired the board that established the standards for administrators, which he says espouse an entirely new approach to school leadership. The job is "not just about management and administration," he said. "We no longer fight with people about this."

The School Superintendent Assessment was modeled, in part, on a similar exam for principals, the School Leaders Licensure Assessment. First given in 1998 in Mississippi, Missouri, and North Carolina, it will be used to license principals in nine states by the end of this school year.

The superintendents' test focuses on issues of instruction and how management revolves around the goal of effective teaching.

During the three-hour examination, candidates must answer three sections of questions, some with short answers and some with long, about how they would handle various situations in a district. They are judged on how closely their answers reflect the national standards.

Candidates usually pay to take the tests, which cost $265 for superintendents and $435 for principals, whose exam lasts six hours.

While modeled after the same standards, the superintendents' test includes "more scenarios and issues dealing with school board relations, community involvement, and community relations," said John Holloway, who directed the development of the tests for the ETS.

The licensing tests won't be the only time administrators encounter the national standards.

The School Leader Portfolio Assessment, scheduled for field tests in the summer of 2002, is intended for making judgments about renewing credentials or for professional development. Five states are involved in the development of the portfolio: Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio.

School leaders will be required to demonstrate their growth and competency by completing a portfolio over two years. The assessment requires reflection, asking administrators to write about their mistakes and what they learned from them.

'The Real World'

The three assessments represent a significant change in the nature of the profession, said Doug Miller, the coordinator of professional development for the Missouri education department's leadership academy.

"It's the first time I've seen a common language around preparation and the assessment of school leaders that is common to the field, across state lines," he said. "We've got a radar gun that tells the preparatory institution what a good-quality program" should teach, Mr. Miller said.

To a significant degree, institutions in Missouri already are changing their programs in educational leadership.

Robert Buchanan, a professor at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, has seen the licensing of administrators evolve from a cumbersome, expensive, three-day role-playing exercise that stressed school management.

The national standards for administrators measure candidates on "what they would face in the real world," said the former superintendent of the 4,200-student Sikeston, Mo., district. In response, universities are stressing topics such as student test scores—a fact of life the older ways of training school administrators didn't emphasize.

"This is a much better evaluation," Mr. Buchanan said of the superintendents' exam, "simply because it's problem-solving, and that's exactly what school administrators do."

Vol. 20, Issue 8, Page 1

Published in Print: October 25, 2000, as New Test Probes Superintendents' Leadership Skills
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The ETS teaching study was sponsored by the Milken Family Foundation of Santa Monica, Calif.

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