Teachers Denied Grading Curve

Massachusetts officials took swift action after a third of would-be teachers flunked the literacy section of a candidacy test.

The state Board of Education voted Wednesday to reverse itself and adopt higher standards for teacher certification. The board had considered grading the teacher's tests on a curve.

Wednesday's 6-to-1 vote by the board means that fewer teachers who took the state's first-ever certification exam will be given passing grades.

Gov. Paul Cellucci made a personal appeal to the board to reinstitute the tougher standards. He said he wanted to make sure that new teachers who enter classrooms are capable and competent.

An earlier decision by officials had adjusted the passing grade, which helped about 260 test-takers, reducing from 56 percent to 44 percent the overall failure rate involving the first such test.

Until this spring, Massachusetts was one of only seven states that did not require teachers to pass a test to qualify for certification.

The tests had created a firestorm of criticism from all sides.

Education Commissioner Frank Haydu III resigned Monday. A day later, he said the test results had flared into controversy because of the board's "bizarre," contentious, and ideological nature, coupled with gubernatorial election politics.

House Speaker Thomas Finneran called the prospective educators and those who gave them degrees "idiots." The education commissioner resigned.

Finneran said last week that he saw the tests, which were not released, and was appalled to see candidates who couldn't "define a noun or a verb or what democracy means or the meaning of the word `imminent'."

Some test-takers, when trying to rewrite sentences, misspelled words most 9-year-olds can spell, even though the words were right in front of them. Some wrote at a fifth- or sixth-grade level. Many wrote sentences lacking both nouns and verbs.

Haydu said the board - under Chairman John Silber's "autocratic" leadership - is the state's second biggest obstacle to education reform, next to widespread poor literacy skills.

Silber agreed that poor literacy is widespread in Massachusetts but disagreed with the portrayal of the board as too contentious to reach consensus.

He also disagreed with Haydu's criticism that the board's nine members don't include any teachers. Six members hail from academia or political think tanks.

"We should be deciding what they should be doing. They have a vested interest and a conflict of interest that is glaring," said Silber.

Massachusetts educators fear the controversy will be even worse when new statewide student tests are released this fall.
"If this has been the result of the teacher test, which we all thought was fairly mild, what's going to happen in November when we report the results of the student testing?" asked Peter Finn, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Shool Superintendents.