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A change in testing standards

October 07, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Heather Wiles heard horror stories about the difficulty of the Praxis I standardized teaching tests from other students at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.

She knew a student who tried four times before she passed the math, reading and writing basic skills tests required for education majors. The student wasn't dumb; she was just not good at taking standardized tests.

Consequently, Wiles, 22, of Hagerstown, said she was really frightened as she went in to take the Praxis I tests. But her fear proved unfounded.

"I walked out and thought, 'what was I scared of?' " said Wiles, who is student-teaching at Salem Avenue Elementary School in Hagerstown this semester and will graduate from Shepherd in December.

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Wiles' experience left her with mixed feelings about West Virginia's new emphasis on standardized tests in judging would-be teachers.

As of Sept. 1, the state raised the passing scores on the Praxis I reading and writing tests, the Praxis II test on learning and teaching for middle school teachers, and several subject-area tests for secondary and specialty teachers.

While she supports measuring the general knowledge of teachers before letting them in the classroom, Wiles is worried the standardized test and the anxiety that some experience over taking the test skew the reliability of test scores in measuring knowledge. She is also concerned that some students qualified to become teachers will not make the cut because of poor test performance.

Her concern is indicative of a larger emerging issue: The increasing reliance on tough standardized tests in weeding out potential teachers at the same time many school systems are seeking new teachers as a generation of older ones prepare to retire.

Raising the bar

As the nation's focus on student assessment has intensified, so has the movement to hold teachers more accountable for their students' achievement.

Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have followed a national trend in scrutinizing and stiffening requirements for aspiring teachers. Though each has taken a different approach to revising certification standards, all three states have a common piece - placing more emphasis on achievement on standardized tests.

All three have chosen tests from The Praxis Series, developed by Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, as their assessment tool for new teachers.

Maryland, in the process of switching to Praxis from the National Teachers Examination, raised the scores required to pass the old tests during the transition period and set a high bar on the new tests.

Pennsylvania, which requires a mix of NTE and Praxis tests, raised the passing scores on the tests it was using and set high scores on the new and revised tests it adopted.

West Virginia, which adopted the Praxis test several years ago, has continued to raise its required passing scores and to add more tests for specific subject areas and grade levels teachers will be teaching.

A national alarm

If students are being held to higher standards on assessment tests, the people charged with preparing them must be up to the task, said Terry Dozier, special advisor on teaching to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. That means establishing higher standards for teachers as well.

When 59 percent of prospective teachers failed Massachusetts' new state licensing exam last year, it set off a national alarm about the quality of those entering the teaching profession, she said. It also focused attention on what different states' licensing exams entail and what scores they set for passing, Dozier said.

Traditionally, levels have been so low the exams tended to just weed out the weakest candidates, she said.

Because public education is the domain of individual states, no one is advocating national certification for teachers, Dozier said. However, about 30 states have joined to develop performance-based assessments for teachers that can be used as a guideline of standards reform, Dozier said.

Connecticut is the farthest along with its performance-based approach, which requires students to pass tests on content and teaching before initial licensing and then to demonstrate their competency in the classroom before they become fully certified, she said.

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