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Giant Test Firm Botches Exams--and Changes Lives

Ohanian Comment: Thank you to this reporter for putting a family's face on testing errors. ETS--and other testing companies--seem to have the "OOPS! Sorry" attitude. They need to be made to face the fact that they have disrupted lives. They need to be made to pay.

All Rob Mitchell wanted to do was settle into his new career and raise his family in the Miami Valley.

Mitchell, 31, and his wife, Cathy high school sweethearts who started dating when both were 15-year-old Wayne High School students thought they were well on their way toward that bright future a year ago. Mitchell had gone back to Wright State University to change careers after working as a manager at a Cincinnati-area automotive plant. Graduate school had gone well he graduated in spring 2003 with a 3.9 grade-point average and Mitchell quickly landed a full-time job for the fall teaching social studies at Stebbins High School. Cathy worked as a quality-control employee at General Motors' Moraine Assembly Plant, and the couple had a 6-month-old son.

But Mitchell had a problem: The giant testing firm, Educational Testing Services, told Mitchell throughout the school year that he repeatedly flunked the "Praxis II" teacher licensure exam that he had to pass to keep his job. At the end of the school year, the Mad River school district officials terminated Mitchell, making clear that while they liked his performance in the classroom, they couldn't keep him without the licensing credential. After learning that his score would count as a passing score in Tennessee, Rob and Cathy had a heart-to-heart talk, and with great reluctance, sold their Springboro home and moved the 350 miles to Spring Hill, Tenn., where Cathy transferred to a GM plant.

Within days of moving to Tennessee, Rob received notice from that the testing company had made a "scoring error" on many of the half-dozen Praxis II tests he had taken the previous 18 months he actually scored higher than the firm had previous calculated. He had passed that licensing exam after all more than a year ago. In fact, he had passed twice.

Mitchell was stunned, but not alone. ETS has notified 4,100 aspiring teachers across the United States 1,200 in Ohio including Mitchell who were mistakenly told they had failed the test that they had, indeed, passed.

Mitchell's job at Stebbins has long since been filled. And his wife signed a contract with GM saying she would stay in Spring Hill at least a year.

"Our whole life is turned upside down," Cathy Mitchell said. "We altered everything because of this. It could have been so different if we had known this a year ago."

Alex Dinino, superintendent of the Mad River Local School District that hired Mitchell a year ago, confirmed that the first-year teacher was let go at the end of last school year solely because he did not pass the Praxis II test.

Mitchell had earned positive job evaluations, and "his high school principal would have recommended that his contract be renewed" for this year, Dinino said. "The determining factor was his failure to get the license."

With only days of summer vacation remaining, there are no current social studies openings at Stebbins or elsewhere in the district, Dinino said.

The ETS scoring error "certainly affected his career," Dinino said of Mitchell. "Both of us lost out."

ETS spokesman Tom Ewing said the testing company took immediate action once it learned of a flaw in the grading of the short-essay portion of the Praxis II Principles of Learning and Teaching Exam administered between early 2003 and April 2004. That portion of the Praxis II covers material that secondary-school teachers are expected to know about teaching techniques and practices. Other "content-knowledge" portions of the exam measure proficiency in specific subjects, such as math for teachers seeking a license to teach math.

ETS has issued the aspiring teachers refund checks to cover the cost of signing up for the tests and any subsequent Praxis II exams they took, Ewing said. And ETS attorneys are working "on a case-by-case basis" with people who lost out on jobs because of the scoring error, attempting to calculate and negotiate compensation, the testing-company spokesman said.

"We're working to try to make things right," Ewing said.

Mitchell, like other aspiring teachers whose initial scores placed them just shy of passing, had re-submitted at least one of his Praxis exams for re-scoring, but it was returned with the same score. ETS spokesman Ewing said the scoring flaw had not yet been discovered.

ETS customarily applies a statistical procedure to test scores to account for the fact that essays are graded by humans, to account for variables in human scoring, the ETS spokesman said. But company officials discovered that the procedure was not applied to the Praxis II exams in 2003 and early 2004. The ETS employee responsible for applying the statistical procedure has been removed from the Praxis program and re-assigned, Ewing said. In addition, a technical advisory committee has been formed to help ensure the error is not repeated, he said.

ETS is the world's largest private education testing company, also producing the SAT college-entrance exam. It faces multiple lawsuits over its Praxis II scoring error, including a suit filed Aug. 2 in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati by an Ohio man and Louisiana woman.

Mitchell said he was "astonished" to learn that the Ohio Department of Education would continue to use ETS and the company's Praxis exams to license teachers.

"It's shameful," he said. "One mistake is too many, let alone 1,200. Why continue to support an organization you know is giving you faulty results?"

Ohio Department of Education spokesman J.C. Benton said, "There is no belief that the Praxis exam or the criteria is flawed. This problem was created when the test and criteria were not followed correctly."

Attorneys for ETS and the education department met July 26 to discuss the issue. The next day, Benton said the department's attorneys told him the meeting "went well and that ETS is still committed to working to rectify the situation."

Some states have developed alternative assessments for prospective teachers who cannot pass portions of the Praxis exam. Ohio officials studied the idea years ago, but rejected it because of the high cost of such tests and complications of transferring such credentials to other states, Benton said.

State board of education member Carl Wick of Centerville said the ETS scoring errors "also have us irate," although the state board had not found a more effective way of measuring teacher proficiency than the Praxis exams. Wick said he anticipates the ETS scoring error and its impact will be discussed intently at the board's next meeting in September.

Mitchell said that's too late to help him. He has not found a job in Tennessee yet, and does not know what the family will do next year. And he is saddened that both sets of his son's grandparents his parents live in Waynesville, his in-laws just outside Springboro now must travel 350 miles to see their grandson.

And his wife, Cathy, just found out she's pregnant.

"We're ecstatic, but oh my heavens, we're so far from home," she said.

Contact Mark Fisher at 225-2258.

— Mark Fisher
Dayton Daily News





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