Schools Employing Online Talent Tests to Screen Prospects

By Bess Keller — May 19, 2004 8 min read
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What’s quick, easy, and sorts applicants for teaching jobs by how much promise they show?

Until recently, that riddle was perplexing. Putting prospective teachers through standardized interviews about their approach to the job might fulfill a sorting function, but it was time-consuming on both sides. Online applications, though they can be relatively quick and easy, tend to give a school district too little information about the real-world potential of candidates.

But with the latest in technology, some district hiring experts and their partners in the private sector say they’ve got the answer. By giving candidates a short online talent assessment that returns results to the district almost immediately, a school system has a better chance of snagging the best people at a cost it can afford—a practice that is gaining ground.

“We’re working a lot smarter by using the screen[ing test],” said Cordelia G. Harris, the recruitment manager for the Cleveland schools, one of the first districts to sign up for the Gallup Organization’s latest teacher assessment. “And the price is very reasonable.”

Ms. Harris said the 72,000- student district now pays something like $30,000 annually for the service, based on a $12 to $15 fee per applicant, depending on volume.

The venerable Gallup, which launched its assessment two years ago, is the industry leader. About 100 districts now use its online tool, called Teacher Insight, according to Gary Gordon, who co-directs the company’s Omaha, Neb.-based education division.

Gallup hopes to phase out its standardized in-person or telephone interview, which has been used by thousands of school districts since the 1970s, Mr. Gordon said. “We really see the future with online instruments.”

The financial squeeze on districts nationwide has put a premium on finding new, cheaper ways of doing business. At the same time, the switch to online applications common to an area or a state has raised the number of job applicants, Mr. Gordon and others point out.

There’s action in the nonprofit sector as well. About three years ago, the Haberman Educational Foundation put online a version of the well-known teacher-trait assessment developed by Martin Haberman, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The tests are geared to finding teachers who will thrive in urban schools. About 10 districts, including two of the nation’s largest—Hillsborough County, Fla., and Dallas—pay to use the service.

“In the last year and a half, it’s grown by leaps and bounds,” even though the foundation has put little money into marketing the tests, said Delia Stafford, the group’s president.

Building a Test

Another sign that the tests are gaining popularity is the entry into the field of Kenexa Technology, a human-resources-management company that makes more than 50 job-aptitude tests for private employers. Kenexa recently partnered with the Wake County, N.C., district to design the company’s first such tests for schools.

Not only does the 109,000-student district—which includes the state capital, Raleigh—hire about 1,200 teachers a year, but it’s also trying to improve its retention rate by ensuring a good fit from the start.

Kenexa formed focus groups of teachers and school officials to draw up a list of the characteristics—beliefs, approaches, and behavior patterns—most needed by the Wake County district’s teachers. The company then worked to find multiple-choice questions that would show how closely an individual matched that “success profile.”

Some of the items direct test-takers to rate themselves; others ask them to select the best answer for a school problem. For instance, a question might ask about a situation in which one member of a team working on a curriculum project isn’t pulling his or her weight. Another might inquire how co-workers would be likely to describe the test-taker.

The test, which takes about 30 minutes, can be accessed from any Internet- connected computer anytime. The district receives the score almost immediately, said Ame Creglow, the director of operations for Kenexa’s assessment division, in Lincoln, Neb.

“Our belief is that if you hire people more likely to fit into the success profile, we’ll do better at retaining them,” said Antoinette M. Patterson, the Wake County district’s human-resources chief.

The North Carolina district paid $56,500 for two assessments—for teachers and principals—and access to Kenexa’s test Web site and analysis for a year. Ms. Patterson said she hopes the test will make its debut later this month.

The convenience of online applicant screening has even lured districts into devising their own tools. Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion district, for instance, this year began requiring a “preliminary interview” as part of its online application. That instrument asks candidates about their education and experiences inside schools and out, but it also poses questions of belief and judgment. One, for example, tries to ascertain the test-taker’s attitude toward assessments.

Marty Yoder, the district’s human-resources director and a former Gallup employee, wrote the tests and pushed for the system as a way to speed up hiring. By selecting teachers in April and May, the 7,000-student suburban Philadelphia district can better budget and plan for curriculum, officials there say.

‘Schmooze and Woo’

The Blue Valley, Kan., district in suburban Kansas City last year replaced Gallup’s standardized in-person interview with the company’s online version, which, like the older test, shows how a candidate stacks up against a national reference group of teachers judged highly effective by principals and students.

Al Hanna, the human-resources chief for the 20,000-student district, said the change boosted the district’s competitive edge. By getting a good idea of the best candidates quickly, “we were spending more time on ‘schmooze and woo’ with them earlier,” he said.

The new process also wins parent approval, Mr. Hanna added, for its research base and its evident fairness.

Mr. Hanna and other hiring honchos believe that quickly following up on the assessment with personal contact takes the steeliness out of the process. But those who work with teachers about to begin their careers aren’t so sure.

“We know that new teachers make their decisions [about where to take a job] based on their comfort level and their interaction with the person met on the other side of the table,” said Rebecca Anthony, the placement director for the University of Iowa’s education school. If candidates are put off by having to take a multiple-choice test and decline to do so, Ms. Anthony also warned, districts have no way of knowing the prospects they have lost.

Recent college graduate, Heather L. Penny, was in the first crop of Cleveland job applicants to take the Gallup online interview. She said at the time that she was dissatisfied with not being able to explain her answers, telling a local newspaper “I don’t think life has one answer; I don’t think teaching has one answer.”

Two years later Ms. Penny, now a seventh grade teacher in the Cleveland Heights, Ohio, district, has also been through the in-person version of the interview. “I liked it better than what I did online,” she said.

The test-makers uphold the validity of their instruments, while acknowledging the assessments can only go so far in predicting who will make a successful teacher.

“There’s lots and lots of research out there that says you can predict no more than 25 percent of a person’s performance because of all the factors that contribute to success,” said Ms. Creglow of Kenexa. “But if you can improve your hit rate by 25 percent, that’s pretty good.”

Gallup has begun to compare the teacher picks made by its online test with real-world results in the districts where the test has been adopted, Mr. Gordon said. Looking at up to 10 percent of the hires in a district each year, the company sees how test scores are related to the way principals and students rate those teachers. The first results are expected this summer. “We’ll also use student-performance data where it’s available,” he added.

Kenexa plans the same kind of follow-up in Wake County.

‘Gaming’ the Tests

Stephanie Kay Sachs, who as an academic designed a teacher-talent test and now heads up recruitment for the 40,000-student St. Louis schools, said that before using such a tool in her recruitment efforts, she’d want to make sure it wouldn’t eliminate teachers’ entry to the profession through alternative routes.

Some districts have put safeguards in place to prevent just that. Although Cleveland sets cutoffs for its test scores—which vary by the size of the pool of applicants for jobs at different levels and in different subjects—district-supported teacher aides getting teacher certification are guaranteed in-person interviews, regardless of what they score.

Ms. Sachs also wonders whether individuals can “game” an online assessment. “If many districts are using it,” she said, “the savvy applicant will find out what questions there are and what they are looking for.”

Proponents of such tests, however, are not much disturbed by the possibility that applicants will practice to perfection or cheat. For one thing, they say, the “right” answer is often not evident.

Said Ms. Stafford of the Haberman Foundation, which allows any individual to take its test online by paying $20: “We’ve had people take it five times, and they never improve their scores—not much, anyway.”

Moreover, the proponents say, the truth is almost certain to win out in subsequent in-person interviews. No one is hired on the basis of the talent test alone.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Schools Employing Online Talent Tests to Screen Prospects


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