Teacher screening test faces rocky roll-out

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New teacher Jennifer Kraakevik graduated from Illinois State University  in May with endorsements that ought to make her a hot commodity in the  teaching market–in bilingual education, language arts, Spanish, and  middle-grades education.

Update July 21: Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard sent a memo to principals stating that the test will no longer be used to prevent teachers who fail it from applying for jobs; rather, principals will be provided test results to use at their discretion in hiring.

Kraakevik has spent much of the summer preparing for a job that she might not have.

After accepting a position as a 6th- and 7th-grade language arts teacher in early June, at a school where she completed a seven-week classroom placement and worked in the after-school program, Kraakevik went to the school to prepare her classroom for the year. She spent more than $100 of her own money collecting about 160 books–most of them used, many donations from friends – for the classroom library.

More than a month after Kraakevik accepted the position, she got a message from the district saying she can’t be hired because she didn’t pass the CPS TeacherFit inventory, a test the district began using in June to screen applicants for teaching positions.

And Kraakevik isn’t alone. Delayed school budgets made this year’s official hiring process start late. To fill the gap, some principals began hiring candidates on their own, only to have some of those candidates fail the district’s new test. And now, an outcry from those principals is causing the district to reconsider its stance.

“Whatever we do, we have to be systemic about it,” says Alicia Winckler, head of CPS’ Department of Human Capital. She says that the district might add an exception for teacher candidates who, like Kraakevik, student-taught in CPS. She did not want to say how many teachers or principals she had heard from, because it might not represent the entire number of teachers affected.

The only new teachers who didn’t have to pass the test are those in Teach for America and the Academy for Urban School Leadership, because those candidates were admitted to their programs long before the district implemented the screening. Starting with next year’s batch of alternative certification teachers, Winckler says, she expects all new teachers will have to meet the new standards. (Many of this year’s alternative certification teachers took the test for the district’s records, but low scores did not prevent them from being placed in classrooms.)

Tenured teachers who are trying to switch schools, or who were laid off and are applying from the reassigned teacher pool, also aren’t affected by the change, Winckler says, because hiring for those teachers is governed by the district’s contract with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Disposition screenings are based on the idea that successful teachers in urban schools need specific traits. The screening tools ask candidates how they would react to specific scenarios, and include questions about their beliefs and attitudes.

To tailor the screening to CPS, staff from the company that created the Polaris TeacherFit (the screening’s original version) worked with Chicago teachers and principals to define the characteristics of great teachers, and even visited Chicago schools. The district held focus groups with about 200 high-performing and award winning teachers, as well as principals. In fall 2010, to see whether the tool was valid, more than 800 current CPS teachers took a pilot version of it while their principals rated their on-the-job behavior, and questions that proved ineffective were dropped from the test. Since not all CPS teachers have value-added scores, student achievement data was not used to validate it. Seed money of $100,000 from the Chicago Public Education Fund backed the effort.

The Chicago version of the tool gauges prospective teachers’ planning ability, how they relate to their students, persistence, initiative and focus on results, among other areas. (The screening’s website notes that it can be tailored to an organization’s specific needs.) Similar Polaris screenings are in use in over 100 districts around the country, including Austin, Tex.; Indianapolis; Cincinnati; and Chicago neighbors Wilmette Public School District 39 and Evanston School District 202.

This is the district’s second attempt at using a screening tool. The first time was also controversial. In summer 2010, then-CEO Ron Huberman’s administration screened short-answer essays written by applicants, and then issued a designation of highly recommend, recommend, recommend with reservation or do not recommend. However, those ratings were not binding and principals were free to ignore them. The written questions are also back this year, Winckler says.

The TeacherFit test is part of a new online application system that could help principals in other ways. Until this summer, Winckler says, principals have never had the ability to do online searches for applicants. She says the new system is an advantage for hard-to-staff schools because principals can see applicants for other jobs throughout the district, not just teacher candidates who have applied to their specific openings.

“Maybe one school gets 100 applicants and another school gets 20; the school that gets 20, this really allows them to go in and get the benefits,” she says.

TeacherFit widely used

In general, the Polaris TeacherFit tool ranks candidates against each other on a curve, grading them with a stanine score between 1 and 9. Two districts contacted by Catalyst look for candidates with a score of 7 or better, which would put them in roughly the top 23 percent of the applicants taking the test. But the scores districts look for can vary depending on the volume of applicants they are contending with.

The CPS system uses a stanine distribution as part of its ranking of candidates, but instead of a numbered 1 to 9 score, it assigns them a rating of red, yellow, or green depending on their scores. So far, about one-third of the 3,900 applicants who have taken the test have fallen into each category.

When asked what stanine numbers corresponded to each score, Winckler said it wouldn’t be useful to compare the stanines Chicago uses to those in other districts because Chicago’s tool has been customized and uses different questions.

Erin Farrell, director of human resources for Indianapolis Public Schools, says that her district just started using the TeacherFit in fall 2010 and doesn’t have enough information to track the results yet.

The scores “help us narrow the field down a little bit so that we can target working with those individuals that have scored high,” Farrell says. But the district doesn’t prevent applicants with low scores from being considered for positions.

“This should be just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s certainly helpful if there’s no background on the individual,” she says.

Vicki Mivshek, director of human resources for Thompson School District in Loveland, Colo., says her district lets principals decide how much weight they give the screening results.

“It also lets the principal know what categories the Polaris assesses that they are strong in, and which ones they’re weaker in,” Mivshek says. “It can provide them with interview questions… if they score lower in classroom management, they can ask them some specific questions regarding the classroom management style.”

This is also her district’s first year using the screening, and Mivshek plans to see whether teachers’ evaluations, once they have been hired, match up with their Polaris scores.

Having principals pay attention to scores is “only a recommendation at this point,” Mivshek says, “just because we have not had a chance to really see what the results are yet.”

It’s not just school districts that use the TeacherFit. The National Teacher Education Center, which partners with Quincy University to offer teacher certification programs, requires all its graduate-level education applicants to take the screening.

It’s particularly important for the 100 to 150 candidates a year from the center’s alternative certification program, who have been placed in CPS schools and in communities that include Rockford, Elgin, Waukegan, North Chicago, Berwyn, Cicero, and Maywood.

“At the end of the day, our reputation is on the line when we are recommending somebody,” says Greg Shrader, the center’s president.

He says the tool helps screen out candidates whose attitudes are inconsistent with working in a school – for instance, those who don’t believe that all children can learn. The program occasionally interviews people who don’t meet its cut-off score, but often finds they don’t pan out.

“If the Polaris indicates that there is some reason to suspect there’s attitudes and dispositions that are inconsistent (with teaching), it is generally right,” Shrader says.

Also useful, he notes: the information the tool provides on candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, which can be followed up on in an interview.

According to the website of General ASP, the company that developed the screening, the characteristics measured by the tool are actually clusters of personality, attitude and skill traits – a total of up to 24 per test. The company maintains that the screening measures the traits accurately enough to meet the professional standards set for psychological tests.

“We wanted to find ways where teacher potential could be measured at the time of application,” Janet Knupp, the Fund’s founding president and CEO, said earlier this year.

Kraakevik, for her part, doesn’t blame the school for the misunderstanding. “There was a failure of communication,” she says.

It isn’t clear why administrators at her school, which she doesn’t want to name, didn’t know about the new hiring procedure. Winckler says the district offered principals webinars about the new system. But it would appear the TeacherFit tool has had a rocky roll-out.

Kraakevik didn’t get an email telling her she didn’t pass until July 13, a month after she took it as part of what she thought was a cursory part of the teacher hiring process.

She was also under the impression that she wouldn’t be able to re-take it for 18 months, but Winckler says that will not be the case.

“We are figuring out what is an optimal time frame (for people to re-take the test), and we will be communicating that soon,” Winckler says.
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Questions from the CPS TeacherFit inventory (obtained by Catalyst):

You have a reputation as an effective teacher. As a result, the principal has recently assigned several students to your class who have had difficulties with behavior in other classrooms. You now feel that the addition of these students has created a much larger workload and that the children are also disruptive. Indicate how likely it is that you would take one of the following actions.
Incorporate the students as best you can into your classroom this year, but refuse to take any transfers in the future.
Request additional help from the principal in managing these students’ behavior.
Request that some of the children be moved to a different classroom.
Do your best to manage the students’ behavior on your own and say nothing to anyone else.
(Answers for each statement: Extremely likely, Very likely, Likely, Neither, Unlikely, Very unlikely, Extremely unlikely)

How often have you accomplished something you thought was very difficult or almost impossible?
Very often
Often
Sometimes
Rarely
Never

How do you feel about a job that would require you to regularly work after hours?
Very inconvenient, would refuse such a job
Inconvenient
Somewhat inconvenient
Not inconvenient
Would prefer such a job

How long do you persist on problems when you feel lost or confused?
Very long period of time
Long period of time
About average period of time
Short period of time
Very short period of time

In the past year, how often have you taken charge of a group that you were in without being asked?
Never
Once or twice
Between three and five times
Between six and ten times
More than ten times