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Test Reprieve Keeps Top Teacher on Job

Ohanian Comment: Another part of this story is the many vocational students deprived of high school diplomas because they can't pass an inappropriate test--and the many students who are shut out of vocational programs because Standardistos are so intent on turning their schools into college prep pipelines.

Three cheers for Roger Cline.


FOR a decade there was no diesel mechanics program at Drage Vocational High School, which, as Dick Faiello, the principal, says, was tragic. "We're a manufacturing and trucking region," Mr. Faiello said. "There are truck dealerships all up and down the road, and they need mechanics."

But he couldn't find a diesel teacher; the private sector paid too well. And then, in 2000, Roger Cline put in his application. "I couldn't believe our good luck," Mr. Faiello said. In 25 years with a Detroit Diesel dealer here, Mr. Cline had advanced from mechanic to foreman to dealer representative. He had two journeyman's licenses and a stack of industry prizes, including Top Man Award for outstanding work on the Allison HT-700 transmission.

Mr. Cline was earning $80,000 a year, but was tired of the road, worried he was missing his children grow up. So he took the teaching job at half the salary and quickly displayed a gift for it. In 2001, he was Stark County's rookie teacher of the year. The next year, one of his seniors, Mike Demos, won the SkillsUSA prize as Ohio's top diesel student.

Mr. Cline started without a piece of machinery, so each night after school, he'd drive up to four hours, asking dealers he knew from Detroit Diesel to donate to the school. He collected more than $1 million worth of equipment, including three tractor-trailers. He found a Caterpillar 3176 electronic diesel engine in Hazard, Ky. "You see that Allison electronic transmission?" he asked. "We're the only Ohio school that's got one."

He understood boys who loved trucks, and his classes filled to capacity. When Tim Kirby was looking for a trade, Mr. Cline knew how to hook him. "He let me fire up the big truck," Tim said. "Ever since, I been hooked on diesel. The adrenaline rush from starting up gets you going."

Mr. Cline understood Tonya Mays, the only girl in diesel her year. "I nearly quit, but he said, 'Stick with it; there's good money,' " she said. Mr. Cline is known for finding his graduates jobs and placed Ms. Mays, 20, with Diesel Detail, at $25,000 a year.

He understood blue-collar kids who didn't have lots of social polish. "He had us bring in a necktie and taught us to tie it," Herb Shanklin said. "He showed us how to sit for an interview. That's how he got his job, so he passed it down to us." Mr. Shanklin, 21, now makes $30,000 a year for the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad, thanks to Mr. Cline.

Mr. Cline has patience for Mike Hopkins's blindness because, as he said, "Mike's a good student who loves trucks."

"My dad drove a truck for 20 years," said Mike, an 11th grader. "When I was little I rode with him. I like the smell and sound of them, and my philosophy is, since I can't drive, I want to work on them and be in them." Mr. Cline figured out that a blind mechanic might do well with components that could be held in his hands. "He wants to teach me starters and alternators," Mike said. "I've never done starters or alternators, but I don't think it'll be too bad. Mr. Cline says I can do it."

This year, Mr. Cline's supervisor, Sue Hoffmeyer, gave him a top evaluation. Under "areas to be improved," she wrote, "None at this time." None? "I tried to think of something," Ms. Hoffmeyer said. "But he's so good, I couldn't."

So it's easy to imagine how dismayed - and angry - everyone here was when they heard that Mr. Cline, 51, was going in danger of losing his job. At times, it seems like the American credo is "Test Them 'Til They Bleed," and Mr. Cline felt like he was being bled to death.

Twenty states, including Ohio, require high school teachers to pass the Praxis II principles of learning test produced by the Educational Testing Service, the makers of the SAT. The test includes 12 essays based on case studies that require identifying "principles of effective instructional strategies."

For 22-year-olds who've never had a paid teaching job but are fresh from college with heads crammed full of pedagogy, Praxis II is not hard; 93 percent in Ohio pass. But for vocational teachers, it's torture; only half pass.

Mr. Cline failed Praxis II four times in two years. "He's been so torn up about this," said Ms. Hoffmeyer, who urged a fifth try. "We feared he'd give up and leave." Mr. Cline didn't tell many people, but he was so disgusted, he lined up a diesel job - for a lot more money.

A former Marine who served in Vietnam, he respects the chain of command. When a reporter called, he was reluctant to talk. "I don't want to get anyone upset with me," he said. It was the machine shop teacher, Dave Laubert, who told this reporter the story. Only when the Stark County's superintendent, Larry Morgan, gave his O.K. did Mr. Cline consent. "We're sick over this," Mr. Morgan said.

Stark officials lobbied legislators, the Ohio Education Department, the Praxis people. They pointed out past problems with Praxis II. Last year, ETS admitted to widespread mis-scoring of the test and changed the results of 4,000 teachers in 19 states from failing to passing. Many of those teachers have filed a federal lawsuit, seeking damages.

"There were teachers wrongly thrown out of jobs," says Bob Schaeffer, an antitest advocate working on the lawsuit. "People had nervous breakdowns."

ETS officials would not comment on the lawsuit. As for whether the Praxis II was appropriate for vocational teachers, Mari Pearlman, a vice president, said it was up to states to decide how to use the test. She estimated that 12 states used Praxis II for vocational teachers.

After 18 months of complaints, Ohio recently reversed itself and declared a moratorium on Praxis II for vocational teachers. "We need to look at other options," said Marilyn Troyer, a state education official, who estimates 100 teachers' jobs will be saved.

Mr. Cline heard the news from this reporter, but didn't believe it. "He's been so beaten down," Mr. Laubert said. "He called me worried it was a joke."

People here are delighted that Mr. Cline will be teaching next year. "Roger's smiling again," Ms. Hoffmeyer said. "He's a new man." They see it as a small victory for trusting human judgment over a standardized test, but do not view it as a trend.

E-mail: edmike@nytimes.com

— Michael Winerip
New York Times





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