Gov. Holden wants to tie teachers' raises to an exam

Sunday, February 3, 2002

Gov. Bob Holden's latest education initiative has teachers talking -- but not all of them have positive things to say.

The initiative would force teachers in academically struggling districts to take tests if they want raises. Holden calls it an effort to ensure every student in Missouri's public schools receives the best education possible, but some teachers say they feel like they are being unnecessarily blamed for problems that involve everyone from parents to administrators.

Holden's staff is drafting a bill, titled Accountability Plan to Improve Missouri's Public Schools. It would affect three types of school districts: unaccredited, provisionally accredited and districts with one or more academically deficient schools. The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education determines district status annually through performance reports, which include students' standardized test scores, rates for dropouts and other criteria.

In Missouri, 484 districts are accredited, 39 are provisionally accredited, one is unaccredited. DESE has called five schools academically deficient, and all are in the Kansas City School District.

Teachers in these 45 singled-out districts would be required to take the PRAXIS II exam and pass it to be eligible for a raise under Holden's plan. If they had already taken the exam and passed it, they would be exempt.

Accredited districts and teachers who started their careers in 1990 or later would not be affected by the law even if they taught in a troubled district. That is the year the Missouri Board of Education adopted PRAXIS II as a requirement for certification.

Meadow Heights and Caruthersville are the only two school districts in Southeast Missouri currently on the list of provisionally accredited districts.

Although teachers in Meadow Heights expect to see their district receive accreditation by the end of the spring, they could be affected by the law if the accreditation is not granted.

Defining school problems

Donna Bristow started teaching in the district a year before PRAXIS II was implemented and says she doesn't understand how a test could help solve a district's problems.

"It's not fair to say it's all the teacher's fault if the district doesn't meet the standards," Bristow said. "It takes everybody in the district, the students and the parents, to improve the schools. Just because teachers take a test and pass it doesn't mean it's going to improve the school."

Holden defends his plan, saying the test would provide the public with the reassurance that their children's teachers have the subject matter knowledge necessary for teaching.

"None of this takes the role of the principal who provides the leadership and help to teachers," Holden said. "This is not to try to point a finger at teachers -- all of us have to be accountable."

"The number-one goal of this is to make sure we give every child the best possible chance for success," he said. "We need to make sure we've got the best teachers -- and I think we do."

Missouri was ranked ninth in the nation for overall teacher quality in a recent report by Education Week, one of the nation's leading journals on elementary and secondary education.

Before teachers can be fully certified, they must take and pass at least two assessment exams, including the ACT or College Basic Academic Subjects Examination along with PRAXIS II.

To be accepted into the education program at Southeast Missouri State University, students must either get a composite score of 22 on the ACT or score at least 265 on all sections of the CBASE.

The CBASE is a blanket assessment similar to the ACT that tests the student's general knowledge in five areas: writing, language arts, mathematics, science and social studies.

Before graduation, the students must take and pass the PRAXIS II exam.

Unlike the ACT and CBASE, students who take the PRAXIS II are only tested on their knowledge and skills in their chosen area of study. The PRAXIS II offers 39 different tests ranging from early childhood education to agriculture to speech communication.

'Focus on paperwork'

Some teachers who have already taken the PRAXIS II exam have mixed feelings about Holden's proposal.

Amy Surman, a third grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School, said if she were in an academically deficient school and had not taken the test yet, she would feel singled out by the legislation.

"It seems like they're focusing on the paperwork more than what's going on in the classroom," she said. "It's just a score."

But, Surman said, she understands students would gain from having a teacher with both the classroom experience and the knowledge that is tested on the exam.

"It would benefit the student to have a teacher with a little bit of the educational background in psychology and child development," Surman said, "but no test can prepare you for having your own class full of students."

Laura Tenholder is a senior at Southeast Missouri State University who is completing the first half of her student teaching in Surman's classroom this semester.

She has taken the PRAXIS II twice. The first time she did not get a passing score and she hasn't gotten the results back from her second attempt.

"The in-class, hands-on training is so much better than sitting down and taking a test," Tenholder said. "Having the opportunities to teach lessons and have immediate feedback from the class is not comparable to a test. The PRAXIS exam seems like just another thing we have to do to be certified."

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