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States

Petition May Scuttle Teacher Testing in Ala.

By Linda Jacobson — November 02, 2004 3 min read

A more than 20-year legal battle over teacher testing in Alabama could stretch out even longer if a federal judge decides to add new plaintiffs to the case.

Just when the state was set to begin using the Praxis II series of exams to license teachers, three students from historically black Alabama State University asked to join the lawsuit and are arguing that the interests of students like themselves are not being represented because the original plaintiffs are no longer active in the case.

If U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson decides to add the students, a recent settlement reached between the parties in Allen v. Alabama State Board of Education could fall apart and the more than 6,000 new teachers who enter the profession every year in Alabama would still not be required to demonstrate their competence to teach.

The case began in 1981 when Alabama State, in Montgomery, and some students filed a class action against the state over a new teacher test. They contended that the test discriminated against black aspirants.

‘Behind the Times’

“Some questions had two answers, some had no answer, and some teachers who came through Alabama State University were denied certificates because of that test,” said Paul R. Hubbert, the executive secretary of the Alabama Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “The state had jumped the gun and gotten itself into an untenable posture.”

Under a consent decree, the state stopped administering the test. In the absence of a certification test, the state has used only the completion of a teacher education program as its criterion for awarding a teaching license. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia require teacher-candidates to pass subject-matter tests in order to teach high school, and 22 states require that of their middle school teachers, according to the Education Week Research Center.

The case lingered until 2000, when the consent decree was modified in an attempt to begin subject-matter tests for certification. But testing companies “wouldn’t go near Alabama,” because the decree “was riddled with technical problems,” said Stanford vonMayrhauser, a senior vice president and general counsel for the Educational Testing Service, the Princeton, N.J., company that produces the Praxis tests.

The state conducted some interim basic-skills testing beginning in 2002, but passage of the federal No Child Left Behind Act gave policymakers a new reason to push for evaluating teachers on their knowledge of subject matter. Many are meeting its “highly qualified” standard by passing a subject-matter-knowledge test.

The consent decree was modified again this year, with the Alabama state school board, the university, and the lawyers for the original students in the case agreeing to begin subject-matter testing for future teachers and for current teachers who want to be certified in a new subject.

Alabama State University’s trustees then voted a few weeks ago to back out of the agreement. But just as Judge Thompson was about to remove them, they voted again to accept the pact. It was then that the new group of students asked to intervene.

“We were hoping to begin testing in December,” said Rebecca Leigh White, a spokeswoman for the Alabama education department. The state, she added, even had a pilot plan in which the test scores of students who did not pass the exam in the first year would not have counted.

The Praxis tests are already used in the state on a voluntary basis for teachers to earn “highly qualified” status.

“The sad thing is that No Child Left Behind requires subject-matter testing,” Ms. White said. “We continue to be 23 years behind the times with this lawsuit.”

If the judge decides to add the students to the case, and they disagree with the newest consent decree, the case is expected to go to trial Dec. 20.

The timing of the students’ petition has raised questions over who is paying their legal bills. Some observers have speculated it is the Alabama Education Association. But Mr. Hubbert said that even though the union is also a client of the lawyers representing the students, it is not behind this newest challenge.

‘Testing Is Appropriate’

“I’ve always felt that testing is appropriate. I don’t have heartburn over it,” Mr. Hubbert said. “If it’s a legitimate test, I don’t have a problem with it, and I don’t think most teachers do.”

Vance McCrary, the lawyer for the petitioning students, did not return phone calls last week.

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