Teaching Profession

Pennsylvania Teachers Put to Test

By Bess Keller — January 09, 2002 8 min read
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State tests are familiar medicine to students. Most of the country’s prospective teachers get a dose of them as well. But when some 33,400 Pennsylvania classroom teachers recently took state-mandated tests of their reading and mathematics skills, it was something of a first.

Whether the huge effort grows into a wave of such teacher assessments or washes out, observers are not ready to hazard.

What seems certain, though, is that Pennsylvania is the first state to demand that all public school teachers take tests aimed, proponents say, specifically at improving professional development. Results of the tests, which are given online, will be used by school leaders to help teachers plug holes in their knowledge, not grade or punish them, state leaders say.

“This will give us a sense of just exactly where [teachers] are” when it comes to their mastery of the content that students are expected to know for state tests, said state Secretary of Education Charles B. Zogby, who is charged with carrying out the legislative mandate.

National observers often lament the hit-or-miss nature of many of the professional-development programs provided for teachers. In recent years, legislators around the country have addressed the issue dozens of times, often by upping the amount of training required or by earmarking additional money for such efforts.

Still, for many teachers here in the 5,500-student Cheltenham Township district in suburban Philadelphia and others who took the Pennsylvania tests late last year, the new requirement left a bad taste.

“The tests have no serious purpose,” contended Burton D. Horn, a biology teacher at Cheltenham High School and the head of the local teachers’ union. Amending his comment, he added: “It has a serious political purpose; it has no serious educational purpose.”

Mr. Horn and other union leaders dismiss the tests as a bow to accountability that offers little to the school leaders responsible for helping teachers improve.

Local administrators are scheduled to see the state’s breakdown of the test results next month, but many seem unsure of how helpful the information will be. District results will include no individual scores; those will be released only to the test-takers.

“To some extent, we’re going to have to wait to see” the value of the results, said Christopher W. McGinley, the assistant superintendent in Cheltenham.

Birth of a Deal

One reason teachers have criticized the tests as politically motivated has to do with the tests’ birth in the legislature last year, and the teachers’ history with then-Gov. Tom Ridge. The exams were part of a package of education measures pushed through last May by Mr. Ridge, with whom the statewide teachers union had locked horns over vouchers through much of his seven years in office.

Mr. Ridge, a Republican, left the governorship in September to head the new federal Office of Homeland Security.

With the legislation, Mr. Ridge won a partial victory for parental choice. One provision calls for state grants that parents can use for after-school tutoring if their children do poorly on state tests. Another policy awards corporations state tax credits for their contributions to groups that finance scholarships to private schools.

A third measure provided for the establishment of the tests, which teachers take through a special Web site. (“Pa. OKs Private-Tutoring Grants to Parents,” May 16, 2001.) The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, liked none of the proposals. But union leaders agreed not to oppose them actively in exchange for a hefty hike in teachers’ pensions along with those planned for legislators and state employees.

The union leaders were also mollified by the provision guaranteeing test-score confidentiality.

After the vote, the union’s representative body officially went on record against the tests, known as the Pennsylvania Development Assistance Program.

The brainchild of Eugene W. Hickok, the former Pennsylvania education secretary who now holds the No. 3 job in the U.S. Department of Education, the tests have been described consistently by state education leaders as a means to better direct the more than $100 million that Pennsylvania spends annually on workshops and other training for classroom teachers.

Like at least 40 other states, Pennsylvania requires teachers to pass tests to get a license. Two states—North Carolina and Massachusetts—are moving toward limited teacher testing in low-performing schools with an eye toward helping the teachers.

But not since the 1980s—when Texas, Georgia, and Arkansas instituted controversial basic-skills tests for all classroom teachers—has any state imposed a blanket assessment, even one with no individual accountability.

Until the adoption of the new tests, “we really didn’t have any tools, particularly as they pertain to state academic standards, to more strategically invest in professional development,” said Mr. Zogby, who succeeded Mr. Hickok last spring as Pennsylvania’s education secretary.

Mr. Zogby expects that to change starting next month with the initial results. The state plans to test additional teachers over the next four years until all 115,000 Pennsylvania public school teachers have been scrutinized, at a cost of about $7.5 million.

Much may ride nationally on the outcome. “Everyone’s searching for a way to direct professional-development dollars,” said Michael P. Griffith, an analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver. “If this turns out successfully, other states are likely to try it, too.”

Tied to Standards

The new tests are pegged to the state’s student assessments, currently given in reading and math in grades 5, 8, and 11. All teachers must take a reading exam based on the elementary, middle, or high school standards, depending on where they teach. Elementary teachers and middle and high school math and science teachers must take one of three levels of the mathematics exam.

One strong complaint from many teachers who took the test is that the skills tested seemed a far cry from their lessons.

“The [reading] test was very narrowly focused” on fiction and personal narrative, said Mr. Horn, who gave up dentistry to become a teacher about a decade ago.

A teacher in another district declared that “95 percent” of the tests she took were irrelevant to her 2nd grade classroom, mainly because the elementary exams encompass skills and knowledge up to the 5th grade.

If all goes as planned, teachers will get individual results in a letter, and aggregate results will be reported to superintendents by district, building, and some other categories, like subject taught.

The quality of the analysis will make all the difference in whether the system is useful, said Mr. McGinley, who oversees curriculum for the Cheltenham district.

“It’s not useful to know our teachers scored well on a math assessment,” he said. But knowing, for instance, that secondary math teachers are weak in algebra, he said, could lead to work in the school’s math department.

Other school leaders stressed that making professional development effective requires looking at a host of measures, such as teachers’ own views and principals’ evaluations.

“My feeling is that [the test results] are a small bit of information,” said Stephen A. Iovino, the superintendent of the Warwick school district near Lancaster, Pa.

Some teachers make the same point. “If our administrators aren’t aware of our weaknesses ... ,” said Thomas Dwyer, an English teacher at Cheltenham High School, letting his voice trail off to underscore his view that supervisors already have plenty of opportunity to find the gaps in a teacher’s knowledge.

A 30-year classroom veteran, Mr. Dwyer said he considered blowing through the test, but he was persuaded to take it seriously by Mr. Horn, the local union president, as a matter of professional conduct.

Many teachers are unhappy at the prospect that aggregate test scores could be released publicly, as the legislation allows, and then used by the media and parents to compare schools. State officials said Gov. Mark S. Schweiker, a Republican, has not made a final decision on the matter. Scores will also go to the state’s teacher-preparation programs.

Glitches Cited

Meanwhile, local school officials as well as teachers have been toting up the costs of the new program, which was plagued with technical glitches, especially at the beginning of the six-week testing period that began Nov. 1.

State union leaders said that 110 of the state’s more than 200 districts reported problems varying from crowded testing rooms to crashing software. On two tedious days in early November, hundreds of teachers were shut out of the tests by system undercapacity. But all in all, said Frank Meehan, who is in charge both of the tests and teacher certification for the state education department, “it went far better than I thought it would.” For one thing, virtually no teachers refused the test, though the punishment for doing so is merely being barred from state-financed professional development.

Yet even under the best of circumstances, the program eats up precious resources, educators say.

In the Cheltenham district, teachers worked more than 400 paid hours on the tests, each of which takes about an hour to complete. And Joseph Anderson, the personnel director, said that planning for the test squeezed out most of his other work this fall, such as finding substitute teachers and organizing workshops.

Is it worth it? That might depend on what the tests are expected to do.

Experts on staff development and testing applaud the exams for spotlighting teacher quality and state standards, but voice worries that the tests might draw attention from the harder work ahead.

“It’s possible that engaging in all this activity will get confused with doing things that really make a difference,” said Dennis Sparks, the executive director of the Canton, Ohio-based National Staff Development Council, which focuses on schools.

Mr. Sparks and others said they would rather concentrate on developing school leaders able to evaluate teachers and help them improve their classroom skills.

But testing expert Lawrence M. Rudner sees the testing program differently—less as a tool for leaders and more as an encounter for teachers with what Pennsylvania says students should learn.

From that point of view, said the director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation in College Park, Md., “it’s clever.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2002 edition of Education Week as Pennsylvania Teachers Put to Test

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