New exam for principal candidates Written test takes place of 2-day plan for potential leaders

Focus shifts to instruction

Foes say best way to assess capability in action is gone

May 04, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Maryland has become one of four states to adopt a new national test to certify principals.

Teachers who want to be principals in Maryland schools will have to take a written exam that, not unlike the MSPAP tests for students, seeks to measure not only what they know but how to apply it in real-life situations.

"I hope in the long run we'll have a better, more-informed principal focused on teaching and learning," said Lawrence E. Leak, assistant state superintendent for certification and accreditation.

The role and responsibilities of principals have changed radically over the past few decades, from building manager to instruction leader, and the quality of principals is considered critical to the success of schools, Leak said.

In approving the change last week, the Maryland State Board of Education hoped to streamline certification, save the state thousands of dollars and focus the qualifying test on instruction.

Opponents say it was a shortsighted decision.

The new exam, called the School Leaders Licensure Assessment, is based on standards adopted by a national organization of state school administrators. The six-hour test will be substituted for the more cumbersome Principals Assessment Center, which required candidates to spend two days away from their schools in exercises and activities that simulated principals' duties.

Opponents of the change say the written test is not as effective as previously used role-playing techniques, for instance, in requiring candidates to show their capability.

Any less emphasis on demonstrating performance would contradict state reforms for teachers and students, the opponents contend. The Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, for instance, ask the state's third-, fifth- and eighth-graders not only to demonstrate knowledge, but to show they can apply it.

The abandoned Principals Assessment Center program, developed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, has been required of candidates for principal in Maryland since 1993. State education officials said some of the program's criteria are outdated and that candidates were often familiar with its requirements before they attended.

The State Board of Education adopted the new exam by an 11-1 vote, over the objections of the state's Professional Standards and Teacher Education Board, which rejected the new test, 13-3.

The test received high marks from 154 principal candidates, who took it in a pilot project early this year, Leak said.

Afterward, more than 80 percent of those tested said they considered the content appropriate for beginning principals and thought the situations realistic and the test fair and reasonable.

"Response was pretty favorable," Leak said.

One test-taker, however, found that the test contained too many questions for the time allotted, didn't differentiate between those in elementary and secondary schools and "was one of the most grueling tests I've ever taken," said Maggie Caples, a curriculum specialist for the Baltimore schools.

Based on the scores of the pilot group, the board will establish a passing score to be used for future tests, Leak said. That decision will be made this month.

The state board changed tests after superintendents complained about the cost -- in dollars and days -- and the labor required for the assessment center. Those attending the center lost two school days and stayed in hotels at the state's expense.

In addition, the activities were graded by school personnel, who spent three or four days several times a year administering the center assessment. That cost the state $67,000 annually; in addition, each candidate paid $500 to take the test.

The ETS test will cost candidates $400 to $500, but there will be no cost to the state. It will be given on Saturdays, so candidates will not lose work time.

The test, developed by Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., which created the SAT and other qualifying tests, asks candidates to respond to close-to-life situations.

For instance, one sample vignette presents a parent asking that her son be allowed to drop physics midway through the second semester because he is failing. The principal concurs, based on the parent's argument that the stress is hurting her son.

The exam asks the candidate to "evaluate the principal's action from the point of view of learning and teaching."

Another question gives a table of enrollment data in high school courses for students, categorized by race and gender, then asks questions based on the data.

Despite its attempt to be reality-based, the ETS test falls short of measuring a candidate's potential performance, its critics say.

"The elimination of the principal's assessment center sends a mixed message to those involved in educational reform concerning your commitment to performance-based assessment because the new test is a test of applied knowledge, not of performance," Susan Arisman, president of the Maryland Association for Colleges of Teacher Education, told the board this year.

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