- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

Math teachers in Massachusetts may soon have to prove they can practice what they teach.

The state's board of education last week adopted new regulations that require math teachers in secondary schools where 30 percent of students fail the state's math tests to take the exams themselves.

The unanimous decision to test math teachers in low-performing schools sets a national precedent for accountability, but has infuriated teachers who say they may boycott their classes if they are forced to be tested. Teachers union officials are already planning a lawsuit.

"We not only believe it is illegal, but it is unnecessary," said Stephen E. Gorrie, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "We think it is going to damage the quality of schools by driving good teachers out of our system."

His 90,000-member union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is joining forces with the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers to file a lawsuit to stop the testing requirement. Their suit will claim that the board went beyond its authority by approving a regulation that the legislature has repeatedly rejected.

Under the new ruling, teachers in schools that consistently score low on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams must take a math test before a principal can approve their professional development plans. Without an approved plan, teachers can lose state certification. A 1992 law requires Massachusetts teachers to renew certification every five years.

Republican Gov. Paul Celucci, who appoints the nine-member state school board, defended the new regulations as badly needed. He called attention to sagging math scores in his State of the State address in January.

In 1999, 40 percent of Massachusetts eighth-graders and 53 percent of 10th-graders failed the math section of the state test, which has been in place since 1998.

"The MCAS results in math these last two years have set off alarm bells that too many children in too many schools are not getting the math education they need to work in the leading industries of our state," Mr. Celucci told the Boston Globe.

The new rules require math-teacher testing as a way to find out if instructors understand the subject matter or whether they might need further professional development to help them master the material covered on the MCAS exams.

The board said teachers who failed the math tests would not be punished and the results would not be made public, but Mr. Gorrie says he fears that information would quickly be made public.

The state also would not count scores of students who had limited English proficiency, were in special-education classes or those who had not lived in the school district for two years, in determining a school's failure rate.

Before its vote, four hearings were held around the state to solicit public comment. The department of education also accepted written comments and completed a teacher survey, as well as conducted focus groups in advance of the decision, which observers said could bolster attempts by other states to follow suit.

"I attended all but one of the meetings, and not one person spoke in favor of the tests," said Mr. Gorrie, a fourth-grade teacher for 27 years.

Similar efforts to test teachers have been attempted in several states, but those efforts have not been successful, said Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the National Education Association in Washington.

Two years ago, North Carolina legislators, facing a teacher boycott, revoked a law that required teachers at 15 low-performing schools to be tested on their skills. Massachusetts lawmakers have twice rejected a teacher-testing measure, and teachers there now say the board's recent actions may reflect a way for the Republican governor to skirt the Democrat-led legislature.

"Testing teachers who are practicing isn't the most effective way to determine how competent a teacher is," Mr. Wollmer said. "The best way is to observe them in a classroom."

Some teachers, angered by the board's decision, said they feared the tests would target teachers in low-income school districts and fail to identify those poor teachers who happen to work in more affluent school districts where test scores usually are high.

They also told the board that its ruling would most likely turn off prospective math teachers at a time when national shortages and distribution problems, particularly in math, were legion.

The board is just saying the reason why the students don't know these things is that the teachers don't know it, first-year teacher Michael V. Ziniti, 23, told the Boston Globe. They're not acknowledging other factors that exist familial or social factors.

Mr. Ziniti, who posted perfect scores on the math section of the state's teacher-certification test, said he would quit the profession after this year.

James E. Peyser, chairman of the state board, defended its action.

Mr. Peyser, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston think tank, told Education Week that he thinks the new rules will hold up in court.

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