Phila. Middle School Teachers Fail ‘Highly Qualified’ Tests

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Half the Philadelphia middle school teachers who took tests to meet the federal "highly qualified" standard fell short.

The good news, district leaders say, is that the school system is ready to help them. Already in the works are plans for "academies" to beef up middle school teachers’ knowledge of their subjects and a contract with a test-preparation company to coach teachers for the tests.

Results on Pennsylvania’s tests, which are the same as those that some states now require new teachers to pass, varied significantly by subject. But in every subject, as well as the overall passing rate, teachers in the rest of the state markedly outpaced those in its biggest district, according to figures from the state education department.

Math Anxiety

Math teachers are in the most trouble. In Philadelphia, almost two out of three flunked, while in the rest of the state, just over one out of four failed. The failure rate for Philadelphia middle school teachers was 53 percent in science, 40 percent in English, and 32 percent in social studies. In the rest of the state, the failure rates in those subjects were around 20 percent.

Philadelphia has been the only district to ask the state education department for the numbers so far. The department will not provide any more breakdowns unless districts ask for them, said Brian Christopher, a spokesman.

About half of Philadelphia’s 1,346 7th and 8th grade teachers in the four subjects took the tests last September and November. Almost 3,000 of their peers elsewhere in Pennsylvania also took the exams then. Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, they have until the 2005-06 school year to pass them as a demonstration of subject-matter mastery.

"You have a group of folks who have certification who we are going to try to actively engage and support," said Joseph Jacovino, the Philadelphia district’s chief accountability officer. "Along with 500 other districts in the commonwealth, we have to devise a means of helping our teachers become highly qualified."

Responding to the 2002 federal law, Pennsylvania has specified that a teacher in a grade higher than 6th needs a college major or equivalent coursework in the subject taught or a passing grade on a test of that subject. States can also give veteran teachers an alternate to a major or a test, but Pennsylvania has not done so yet.

Free Courses

The problem of underqualified middle school teachers affects districts statewide because Pennsylvania, like many other states, has in the past allowed teachers with general elementary certification to teach 7th and 8th grades. But by 2006 such certification will not equal "highly qualified" status in those grades.

Philadelphia’s problem could be compounded by teachers’ relatively broad contractual rights.

If veteran 7th and 8th grade teachers with elementary certification do not pass the tests, they could decide to use their seniority rights to claim elementary school jobs, where they would be deemed "highly qualified." Those veteran middle school teachers in turn would bump the elementary teachers up to the middle schools. The vast majority of those teachers would be in violation of federal law because they also are not qualified in individual subjects.

Already the middle grades are the most difficult to staff in the 200,000-student district. The result could be much more teacher turnover without increases in qualified teachers.

"We have a shortage now, and now we’re making it tougher," said Joseph B. Ritvalsky, the principal of Pierce Middle School in Philadelphia. "The better-quality people are going to maneuver to the better assignments," he added.

Mr. Ritvalsky said some senior teachers in his school have not taken the tests, figuring they could always shift to a job in an elementary school.

He said he was not concerned that any of his teachers lack the necessary subject-matter expertise, "but I know the problem exists in other schools."

To test the teachers, the state is using the middle-grades Praxis II subject tests from the Educational Testing Service. They are roughly on the level of advanced high school work.

Mark Teoh, a research associate with the Philadelphia Education Fund who took the math test, got a perfect score, but he called the exam "challenging" for someone who doesn’t have time to bone up on content and test-taking skills.

District officials say they are beginning to help middle school teachers do just that, starting broadly with efforts to raise student achievement in the middle grades and training in the district’s new standardized curriculum. Those initiatives have support from GlaxoSmithKline, a drug company. The school system has also won a $500,000 grant from the Wachovia Corp., a financial-services company, to underwrite specially designed courses in content for 7th and 8th grade teachers at local universities.

In addition, the Princeton Review, a New York City-based test-preparation company, is about to be hired by the district to give 12-hour courses tailored to the Praxis II. Both the college and test-prep courses will be free to teachers, and the district will also reimburse the $80 cost of any test for teachers who pass.

Vol. 23, Issue 30, Page 9

Published in Print: April 7, 2004, as Phila. Middle School Teachers Fail ‘Highly Qualified’ Tests
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