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Pennsylvania Department of Ed won't Release Teacher Test Data

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has refused a request by The Inquirer to reveal how many middle school teachers failed certification exams in each of the state's 501 school districts.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind law, seventh- and eighth-grade teachers must have certification in the subjects they teach by June 2006. Teachers who do not have the certification can obtain it by passing exams in those subjects.

Last week, the Philadelphia School District released data - which it obtained from the Education Department - showing that half of its seventh- and eighth-grade teachers who took the exams in English, math, social studies and science failed.

But people outside Philadelphia - including in Bucks, Chester, Montgomery and Delaware Counties - do not know how their school district's teachers performed.

That upsets Chester taxpayer Genevieve Christopher, a resident of the Chester Upland School District in Delaware County. She wants to know how many teachers there failed.

"Our children need a good education, and they can't get it unless the teachers are qualified... . [The state] should release it because people need to know," she said in an interview.

The Education Department reported that statewide, 668 of 2,905 middle school teachers - 23 percent - failed the tests, excluding Philadelphia, where 344 of 690 teachers failed.

But the department declined to provide a breakdown by district. State officials said it was up to school districts to release the information, even while acknowledging that no other district had requested it, as Philadelphia, the state's largest, did.

The Inquirer filed a request for this information under the state's Right to Know Act.

"It is hard to understand why the state would claim that information on public school teachers would not be a matter of public information," Inquirer managing editor Anne Gordon said. "The Inquirer will continue to press this matter because the public has a right to the complete test results of the teachers who are so important to the education of our young."

Most Pennsylvania districts contacted last week said they did not know how many of their teachers failed the exams.

The Education Department's stance "is very troubling," said Robert P. Strauss, Carnegie Mellon professor of economics and public policy at the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management.

"Here we have an administration committed to improving educational outcomes of young people, but they don't want anybody to know how the teachers are doing," said Strauss, a watchdog of teacher quality. "If the teachers need help through professional development, let's not hide from it."

The Pittsburgh School District, the state's second-largest district, reported that few teachers took the test, spokeswoman Patricia Crawford said. She said she had no information on the exact number or the pass/fail rate.

Susan Stewart, acting director of the state Education Department's bureau of teacher certification and preparation, said the department must obtain the data from two separate files - one that records the teacher's performance on the test and the other that shows where the teacher is employed. The department only runs such a report if a district requests the data, she said.

"If we didn't run the report, it's not a matter of public record," she said.

Kate Philips, press secretary for Gov. Rendell, backed the Education Department's stance.

"We don't believe that the school districts would appreciate us releasing the information without having the ability to review it on their own and compare it to the current year's teachers list and give perspective on the numbers," Philips said. She added that she believed all districts should request the data from the Education Department and then make them public.

The media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association said the public has the right to know the information.

"The No Child Left Behind Act emphasizes teacher quality and school accountability," said Teri Henning, media law counsel for the association. "These test results obviously are closely connected to school district decisions about staffing and how to comply with the federal requirements."

State House Speaker John Perzel (R., Phila.) said through spokeswoman Beth Williams that the Education Department should provide the data. "We believe that parents and taxpayers have the right to know," Williams said.

The Philadelphia School District not only released its overall failure number, but also broke it down by subject. The data showed that teachers did the worst in math. Nearly two of every three failed that exam.

"You have to admit to a problem before you can address it," said Paul Vallas, district chief executive officer, explaining why he released the data. "It was important to get that number out there so that it would be a wake-up call to everyone."

In Philadelphia, which has suffered teacher shortages for years, more than 90 percent of its certified middle school teachers are elementary certified, rather than subject certified. The district relies on elementary-certified teachers to a much greater extent than most other districts.

To deepen the subject knowledge of those teachers, the district this summer will offer courses in their subjects. At a news conference today, it is to trumpet a $500,000 grant that it received from Wachovia Bank to run a teachers academy. It also plans to offer teachers a test-preparation program.

"We will do what needs to be done to make sure all of our teachers become highly qualified," Vallas said.

Jennifer Copes, Chester Upland's director of human resources, said 25 of its 100 middle school teachers need to pass the exams by 2006. The others are certified in their subjects, she said. Of those 25, five have passed, she said, but she did not know if any others had taken the test and failed.

Neshaminy School District in Bucks County reported that only three teachers needed to pass the test and that all of them had done so.

In Chichester, Delaware County, six teachers still need to pass, said Steve Marrone, coordinator of federal programs. Several others already have, he said. He did not have data on whether any had failed, he said.

"Our commitment is anybody we hire from this point on has got to be certified," he said.

Under the federal law, parents in high-poverty schools in the federal Title 1 program have the right to find out the credentials of their child's teacher. Schools must inform parents who ask. Those schools also must notify parents if their child is being taught by a teacher who is not highly qualified.

— Susan Snyder
Philadelphia Inquirer


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