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Lawmakers Push Competency Tests For Teachers Critics Say Accountability, Skills Can’t Be Measured That Way

A national trend to require competency tests for entry-level school teachers is gaining momentum in Washington state.

Lawmakers in Olympia are pushing three bills for basic skills tests, and the State Board of Education is debating the issue.

“There’s not a good teacher in this state who would oppose a competency test,” said Rep. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who sponsors one bill. “We want some basic competency skills verified before they come into the teaching profession.”

Benton, a parent of two school-age children, said he wants more assurance that graduates going into the profession are ready to teach.

According to a study published in Educational Research Quarterly in 1992, as many as 10 percent of all teachers are incompetent. If that is true, that would mean that 180 of Spokane School District’s 1,800 teachers aren’t competent enough to be in the classroom.

Proponents hope competency tests will screen out bad teachers before they get their certificates and job protections under state law.

But professors who train new teachers said competency tests are not the answer, because tests don’t easily measure the complex skills needed to be good in the classroom.

“I think holding professors accountable is better than mandating tests,” said Phyllis Edmundson, dean of the College of Education at Eastern Washington University, among the largest of the state’s 21 teacher preparation programs.

Edmundson said some important skills of a good teacher, such as the ability to inspire and lead students, can’t be tested with questions and answers.

College students who want to be teachers said tests are nothing more than a public relations ploy.

“We’re still running around trying to find a magic bullet that’s going to satisfy everybody,” said Paul Grubbs, a Gonzaga University senior.

Tests that accurately measure teaching skills are costly - as much as $2,000 - and college graduates would have to pay the bill on top of their already costly educations.

Kymberly Poole, a Gonzaga senior, said she spent at least $50,000 on her education, and couldn’t afford a $100 test right now.

Student teaching is a better indicator of competence than a test, college seniors said.

Associate Professor June Canty Lemke, chairwoman of Gonzaga’s teacher education program, said passing the rigors of a university program should be enough to qualify a new teacher.

“We weed out people all the time,” she said. “It’s not testing that’s going to be the fix, but it’s appealing because it looks like it’s going to be the fix.”

Among the states that require competency tests are California, New York, North Carolina, West Virginia, Minnesota, Mississippi and Florida.

Vermont requires new teachers to submit portfolios instead of testing.

House Bill 2157, proposed by Benton and others, would require one competency test for admission to teacher preparation programs and another upon graduation.

Two other bills would require a written essay to enter teacher prep programs, but waive a full competency test if the student has two or more years of college credits.

Several years ago, the State Board of Education considered the possibility of competency tests for graduating students, but abandoned the idea as unworkable, Lemke said.

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill telling the state board to examine the testing issue. A 13-member committee is working on it.

“We want our teachers to be professionals,” said Kathleen Anderson, of Coupeville, a member of the state board and a former teacher.

Anderson said Benton’s bill probably should be delayed for a year until the state board completes its study of the testing issue and reports back to the Legislature with a recommendation on what kind of test, if any, to require.

Even without a competency test, the state is taking steps to ensure that incoming teachers are qualified.

Starting in 1997, new teachers won’t automatically get a permanent teaching certificate. Entry-level teachers will have to complete a residency at a school district within five years to earn their permanent certificate.

The residency will include mentoring by experienced colleagues, drafting a professional growth plan and in-class assessments.

College students said the problem in schools isn’t so much the qualifications of teachers as it is the distractions confronting them.

“Kids know more about sex and drugs than how to read and write,” said GU senior Jim Schauble. “Let’s look at the social stuff and address that first.”

, DataTimes