Should teachers take competency tests? Houston plan offers clues

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.

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.

Camella Walker, president of the 4,000-member Houston Teachers Association, says she knows of some teachers who actually took early retirement rather than face the ''anxiety'' of the expected testing.

''If these teachers had been teaching all these years, then somewhere before this point they should have been discovered as not proficient,'' she says. ''I'm not saying we don't have some who need help. But there's a process for doing that. Testing should be done prior to certification.

''Kindergarten and first-grade teachers haven't had math since college, and they never need it, but many now have to know it'' because of the tests, she says.

Nonetheless the results from last spring's testing were evidence enough to convince Houston schools superintendent Dr. Billy Reagan that the testing measured some kinds of deficiencies. He stresses that no teacher will lose his job over failure to pass, and that they will be given as many opportunities as they needed to pass.

Actually the written test, he adds, is only a portion of the district program to improve teaching. There are also classroom evaluations, and any low test score or low evaluation is accompanied by the opportunity for the teacher to take a district-sponsored workshop in the area of deficiency.

Dr. Reagan says that the test scores help raise district hiring standards and can be used to develop workshops in the areas most needed.

A new Texas law requires that any college student entering a teaching degree program beginning in 1984 must meet state-determined passing scores on the Pre-Professional Skills Test, the standard Educational Testing Service test used nationwide. The HISD used the PPST in testing this spring along with its own cut-off scores for passing. That test and one to be developed by HISD staff will be used in the future too, says Ronnie Veselka, HISD deputy superintendent for accountability and information systems.

But, says Mr. Veselka, HISD moved ahead with its own more stringent testing program because ''we couldn't wait for the state,'' whose first class of tested students will enter the job market in 1986. ''We get 800 new teachers a year,'' he says, noting that state requirements won't affect the teaching pool for another two years. ''Our goal is to find people with deficiencies and . . . help them get better,'' says Mr. McIntyre. When a teacher can't pass the test, the school district will provide training for that teacher until he does pass the test.

Testing of current employees is perhaps the most controversial part of Houston's program. ''It'll be 40 years before'' teachers on staff now leave the system through attrition, says Mr. McIntyre. ''Right now we're the only ones dealing with current staff, but you wait: In two years you'll see this across the country,'' he says. He, together with with other HISD administrators, suggests that lifetime certification is wrong. ''No one can be certified as knowledgeable for life. . . . Our society is changing too rapidly for anyone to declare that he or she has finished learning.''

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