Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Texas ordered to give first-year elementary school teachers competency tests

By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
Saturday, January 9, 2010

AUSTIN – Several thousand first-year elementary school teachers will have to take competency exams as early as this spring, the U.S. Department of Education has ordered after rejecting Texas' appeal to waive the requirement.

The agency told state Education Commissioner Robert Scott that first-year teachers in elementary and some middle schools who didn't take a "generalist" exam on core subjects are not in compliance with federal standards and must be tested.

Texas has a week to come up with a testing plan.

Federal officials did exempt teachers who specialize in music, art and similar courses from the generalist exam. That waiver may cover thousands of first-year fine arts teachers.

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said there is no estimate yet on how many teachers face the exam.

Before the fine arts teacher waiver, state officials said as many as 30,000 new teachers hired in the current school year might have to take it.

Texas schools typically hire about 45,000 new teachers each year, although some are teachers who move from one district to another.

"We're pleased ... because we didn't think we would win on any front," Ratcliffe said. "We're glad they recognized the special circumstances of fine arts teachers."

Teachers hired before the current school year already were exempted from the requirement, which is meant to ensure that teachers are "highly qualified."

Most new teachers passed only a certification exam in a specific subject, which the state – backed by the Bush administration at the time – said was sufficient to be licensed.

Teachers also must pass a separate teaching practices and professional responsibilities exam.

But an Oct. 19 monitoring report from the Education Department said Texas is in violation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and must submit a plan to implement the requirement that those teachers pass a multi-subject exam.

Secondary school teachers generally are unaffected, since they tend to teach in just one subject. Most elementary school teachers, though, are responsible for multiple subjects.

State officials had asked that new teachers hired last fall be exempted.

But except for fine arts teachers, plans will now be made to administer an exam testing knowledge in reading, math, writing, science and social studies.

Ratcliffe said the testing probably will occur this spring or early summer.

Teacher groups said the resolution of the dispute between the TEA and federal department is unfortunate.

"These teachers have been caught in the middle of a bureaucratic war ... and will be the ones left holding the bag," said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association.

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