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Philadelphia Teachers Face Test Prep--for Test They Have to Pass to Become

Ohanian Comment: This is troubling information. I'd very much like to see test questions.

In Philadelphia, students aren't the only ones struggling to pass tests.

Half of the district's middle school teachers who took tests to become certified as highly qualified under the federal No Child Left Behind law failed, district results show.

Math teachers did the worst: Nearly two out of every three failed that exam, while more than half flunked the science test, 43 percent the English exam, and 34 percent the social-studies test.

The results are for 690 of the public school district's 1,346 seventh- and eighth-grade middle school teachers, who took the tests in September and November. Teachers have until June 2006 to take the test and meet the mandate.

Philadelphia teachers failed the test at a far greater rate than those in the rest of the state. Excluding Philadelphia, 77 percent of the 2,905 teachers statewide passed, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. One-third of the teachers statewide who failed work in Philadelphia.

"It's obviously very discouraging," said Betsey Useem, a research consultant who has studied Philadelphia teacher staffing. "People should be able to pass this test if this is the subject they're teaching. They shouldn't be skating on thin ice in terms of content knowledge."

Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia School District, said in the teachers' defense that the test "is in no way a wimp test. It's a tough test."

But he supported the testing mandate: "Look, we're holding the kids to higher standards. We need to hold our teachers to higher standards, too."

The district plans to run a test-preparation program for teachers to help them pass next time, he said. The test is scheduled to be given again in the next couple of months. Results from January and March tests were not available.

The federal law specifies that seventh- and eighth-grade teachers need to demonstrate content knowledge in every subject they teach to be considered highly qualified, but it allows each state to set its criteria.

Pennsylvania requires that teachers pass exams in the subjects they teach. Some other states, such as New Jersey, also offer alternate routes for veteran teachers to meet the requirement, taking into consideration years of experience and college courses as well as outside training in the subject.

Pennsylvania is considering allowing alternate criteria, although no decision has been made, said Brian Christopher, an Education Department spokesman.

But Ross Wiener, a policy analyst at the Education Trust, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, said eliminating the test requirement did not solve the underlying problem.

"There's a very commonsense statement that teachers cannot teach what they do not know," he said. "Middle school is when students are expected to transition from basic calculations to algebra and advanced math skills. They need teachers with strong content knowledge.

"To eliminate the test is a little bit like shooting the messenger. Obviously these teachers need support," Wiener said.

The testing requirement matters to parents, such as Dolores Shaw, who has a seventh grader at Roberto Clemente Middle School. She said it would "bother [her] a lot" if her child was being taught by someone who had not passed the test.

"It's like sending people to the front lines to teach without the proper weapons. This is an educational war," said Shaw, president of the Roberto Clemente Home and School Association.

In Pennsylvania, elementary teachers are certified through sixth grade and secondary teachers from seventh through 12th grades. But for schools that span both elementary and secondary grades - middle schools - the state has allowed elementary-certified teachers to teach all grades.

Most middle school principals in Philadelphia have preferred elementary-certified teachers to maximize scheduling flexibility; for instance, a math-certified teacher could teach only math, while elementary-certified teachers could teach all subjects.

More than 90 percent of Philadelphia middle school teachers are elementary certified.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers says it is pleased that the district plans to offer a test-preparation program for teachers, but questions the fairness of the testing requirement.

"We have so many middle school teachers who have been doing a terrific job all along. They've been doing it for years," said Arlene Kempin, chief personnel officer for the teachers' union.

Many instructors at the middle school level teach more than one subject, which means they might have to pass multiple exams, she said. As the district converts middle schools to kindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, it will become even more difficult because seventh- and eighth-grade teachers in those schools likely will be teaching all subjects, she said.

"That's going to be a real issue in terms of staffing those schools," she said.

Lisa Haver, a social-studies and science teacher at Harding Middle School, agreed. Haver, who is elementary certified, has been teaching since 1987.

"It doesn't make sense to put in less-experienced teachers who happen to pass this one test," she said.

Haver had taught sixth-grade math for several years before switching to other subjects this year. She would not need the certification to continue teaching sixth grade, but because she has only five years of building seniority, she was concerned that she would be bumped up to seventh and eighth grades as other teachers avoid taking the test.

So she took the math exam - and failed it by three points.

"There was stuff on there I've never seen," Haver said, adding that some of her colleagues were equally perplexed. "When it was over, we just put our pencils down and looked at each other, like: 'What was that?' "

Michael Geraci, a math teacher at Penn Treaty Middle School - who got a perfect score on the math test - said seventh- and eighth-grade teachers needed to know the material on the test. He said the test mostly included seventh- and eighth-grade math and touched on high school math.

"I want to be able to let my students know what to expect going into high school, where this is leading to," said Geraci, who has taught in the city for six years.

But Nick Perry, a science teacher at Conwell Middle School, said one test was not an accurate measure of a teacher.

"Content sometimes is really overrated. A teacher is like an artist, a coach. He has to be able to inspire children," said Perry, a seventh-grade science teacher, who has a master's degree in environmental science and the necessary certification.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com

— Susan Snyder and Dale Mezzacappa
Teachers come up short in testing
Philadelphia Inquirer


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