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Should teachers take competency tests? Houston plan offers clues

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 1983


Editor's note: The Monitor is following up on recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) by examining the areas in which improvement is needed in US public schools and the ways in which these needs are being addressed.

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The following article, on Houston's pilot program in teacher competency testing, relates to an NCEE recommendation on teaching: ''. . . persons preparing to teach should be required to meet high educational standards, to demonstrate an aptitude for teaching, and to demonstrate competence in an academic discipline.''

In the formula X EQUALS 10Y, if the value of Y is doubled, then the value of X is

a) divided by 10

b) multiplied by 10

c) halved

d) doubled

e) multiplied by 20

This math problem takes a little thought, and maybe the average person on the street couldn't figure out in the snap of a finger that ''d'' is the correct answer. But should all schoolteachers be able to figure it out? A first-grade teacher? An English teacher?

And can questions like this measure teaching competency?

The question is a sample from the math portion of the basic skills proficiency test that all Houston Independent School District teachers are now required to take. And as educators nationwide grapple with the problems of improving educational standards, such competency tests are likely to become required more frequently, say Houston administrators.

A lifetime teaching certificate is no longer enough to secure a teaching position in the Houston classroom. A teacher may be initially certified by the State of Texas as qualified to teach. But Houston now requires all teachers - student teachers, new hires, and classroom veterans - to pass written proficiency tests when hired, and every six years thereafter.

A teaching applicant won't get a job here if he can't pass the test, and teachers already on staff must pass the test within two years, or their salaries will be frozen, and they will be ineligible for the HISD's generous stipend program.

While the requirement of competency tests for teachers is caught up in a nationwide swirl of controversy and is strongly opposed by local teacher groups, Houston school administrators are installing it as a permanent program.

''We could care less about state certification'' as insurance that teachers will be qualified, explains Ron McIntyre, HISD executive deputy superintendent. One-third of the school district's 10,000 teachers took a basic skills test in reading, writing, and math last spring, and, though all were state-certified, only 38 percent passed the reading portions and slightly more than half passed math and writing parts.

Teacher associations object to the testing for several reasons. A written test, they suggest, does not shed light on the ability to teach. Further, basic skills questions may test teachers in areas they are not teaching (math for an English teacher, for example). Also they claim it is a ''professional insult'' that casts a shadow on their credibility; other professions are not subject to retesting, they say.