New Exam for Would-Be Principals Provides States a Tool for Licensing

By Bess Keller — November 05, 1997 5 min read
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A new test for aspiring principals aims to produce a better class of school administrators, and four states have plans to use it in the coming year.

The daylong licensure exam is the product of a collaboration of state officials, professional associations concerned with school administration, and the Educational Testing Service.

It is designed to weed out those who shouldn’t get a crack at a principal’s job. The test calls for written responses to real-world problems faced by elementary and secondary school leaders.

“We expect to be relatively sure these people [who pass] could come into a school and do a competent job,” said Neil J. Shipman, who heads an interstate consortium on licensing school leaders.

Officials in the four states--Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, and North Carolina--praise the exam for its quality and practicality, saying it will enhance their efforts to certify highly qualified administrators.

But the enthusiasm is not universal. The leaders of two prominent principals’ groups that have pioneered their own assessments have strong reservations about the new test, which they say may appeal to state officials for the wrong reasons.

‘Constructed’ Answers

Eighteen months in the making at a cost of about $1 million, the exam is a joint creation of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium and the ETS. The Princeton, N.J.-based testing giant already gives a multiple-choice exam for school leaders used by 13 states for licensing principals.

Joseph Murphy

But the new test is better, according to its advocates, in part because of its “constructed answer” format, which requires written responses. Many experts favor such an approach over multiple-choice questions, which they say reveal less about test takers’ thinking.

The questions on the test, which is called the School Leaders Licensure Assessment, are designed to reflect the standards for administrators developed by the 23-state consortium, which was organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.

The tests contrast sharply in cost. The ETS multiple-choice test costs candidates $85, while the price of the new one is $450.

Real-Life Situations

The test, divided into three two-hour blocks, requires candidates to write about situations principals regularly face. Some questions involve understanding and analyzing information such as test scores, school improvement plans, budgets, and staff evaluations.

Sample Exercises

Read the vignette below and briefly and specifically answer the question that follows:

It is early December and the students in an elementary school are practicing for the annual holiday concert. A parent phones the school to insist that her child not be required to sing any of the Christmas songs. The principal excuses the child from participation in the music practice.

Do you agree with the principal’s action? Give a rationale, citing factors that are relevant to a principal’s decisions in such a situation.

Read the vignette below and specifically respond to the prompt that follows:

In March, a high school senior presents a letter from his mother requesting, contrary to school policy, that he be allowed to drop physics, because he is failing the class. He is also failing several other classes, but he does not need to pass physics to graduate. The principal consults with the teachers and with the student's counselor. They all concur that the student could be passing all his courses, including physics, if he worked harder. However, the principal, persuaded by the parent's argument that the stress of physics is adversely affecting her son, authorizes the student to drop the course.

Evaluate the principal’s action from the point of view of learning and teaching.

A candidate might be asked, “What steps would you take with your staff to address the issues raised by the data presented in this document?”

Many of the questions originated with the experiences of New Jersey and Pennsylvania principals who were part of the test’s development team, said Andrew S. Latham, an ETS program administrator who headed the project.

The questions were then vetted by other school administrators, including some in each of the six jurisdictions that chipped in $200,000 or more for the test’s development--the District of Columbia, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and North Carolina. Finally, the exam was field-tested by 400 aspiring principals, Mr. Latham said.

The tests will be scored by school administrators trained by the ETS. Candidates will either pass or fail, with the minimum passing score for each state set by the authorities there.

High Hopes

Those who devised the exam have high hopes for it. “We believe the test will become a national test over time,” Mr. Shipman said.

Most states require some combination of a master’s degree and specific courses in educational administration before granting a principal’s license, he said. Fewer than half require candidates to pass any kind of assessment.

Joseph Murphy, the chairman of the interstate consortium and of the educational leadership department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., said he expects the test to “raise the bar” for principals, not only directly but also by influencing university programs that train administrators. “It will reorient educational administration more toward issues of teaching and learning” and toward applied learning rather than abstractions, he said.

Catherine Wasson, the interim associate superintendent for academic education in Mississippi, said she is already seeing such effects in her state, which in July became the first to give the test.

In 1994, the Mississippi legislature mandated a test for licensing principals that would be harder than the multiple-choice ETS test then in use. As a stopgap measure, state education officials used the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ two-day assessment process, which relies on discussion and simulation to evaluate aspiring principals. But this year, Mississippi switched to the new test.

“The [NASSP] assessment centers measured more process skills,” Ms. Wasson said. “We wanted our measurement to be grounded in teaching and learning.”

Another Defection

Maryland is poised to make the same switch and has tentatively signed up to give the new test in May. Louise Tanney, the director of the NASSP assessment centers for the Maryland education department, said the change accommodated some superintendents who have complained that the NASSP program cost too much and took employees away from their jobs for too long.

But she said the NASSP assessment, in use for 12 years, was successful. “Principals liked it, assessors liked it, and candidates liked it; we found it had good results.”

The Maryland scenario is exactly the one feared by officials of the NASSP and the National Association of Elementary School Principals, which like the NASSP markets an assessment program that can be used for licensure.

“I think people are viewing [the new ETS test] as an inexpensive way to determine whether an individual should be licensed or not, and they won’t even give consideration” to the approach offered by the principals’ associations, said Samuel G. Sava, the executive director of the elementary administrators’ group.

Mr. Sava and others say the simulations offered as part of the NAESP and NASSP assessments are closer to real life than a written test can ever be. Further, they say, those assessments--while a good licensure tool--also help both aspiring and experienced principals improve their skills because they include extensive feedback.

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