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Demystifying the Process

Demystifying the Process
ETS and HBCUs work together to improve the Praxis passage rates of Black students.

By Angela P. Dodson

Twenty-four faculty members representing more than 20 historically Black colleges and universities gathered recently on the campus of Educational Testing Service to hear officials demystify test-making procedures and explain the organization’s efforts to eliminate cultural bias in tests.

The organization initiated the “ETS-HBCU Assessment Development Invitational Conference” out of concern that too many HBCU students were failing the Praxis I exam, the initial test for teacher candidates. As a result, too few HBCU students enter the teaching profession. Many colleges and universities require that students, typically in their sophomore year, pass Praxis I, which measures basic academic skills, for admission into education programs.

During the conference, participants questioned whether any one test can be an adequate measure of a student’s academic knowledge. They also asked if education programs could better prepare students for specific kinds of questions. Some participants raised concerns about whether the tests included culturally relevant questions.

In response, Dr. Michael Zieky, senior assessment director in the assessment development unit of ETS, said all of the organization’s tests must pass a fairness review, and that ETS standards require “substantive contributions” by people representing diversity in demographics, region, institutions and points of view.

Dr. Roni Ellington, an assistant professor of mathematics education at Morgan State University, has been researching student performance on the Praxis exams, particularly on the math portions. She says the use of a single test “is a limited assessment of what students know,particularly in a profession like teaching.

“The research shows that African-American students are taking it four and five times. To me that signals something,” she says. “What I got from the conference is that it signals that we are not doing a good job of preparing them, and I would argue that there are many other factors at play.”

Added Ellington: “Even in the research community we do quantitative and qualitative methodologies. We look at multiple streams of evidence. We try to come up with more complete views and assessments of what people know. So the question is: Why is that not the trend when we talk about licensing? One of the consequences is that we have fewer African-American teachers in the classroom than we did around segregation. To me there are some dire consequences that we are not willing to put on the table.”

Dr. Karen B.M. Donaldson, the chair of the education department at Spelman College, said, “students have multiple learning styles, and to add fairness to testing we must begin to incorporate this philosophy.”

But she applauded ETS officials for “at least attempting to put their money where their mouth is as far as bringing ETS and HBCUs together. Just to be able to have that interaction and dialogue has been a very positive experience.”

Dr. Judith Presley, the assistant dean of the College of Education, Teacher Education and Student Services at Tennessee State University, agreed that the meeting was useful. She estimated that between 25 percent and 33 percent of TSU’s teacher candidates change majors by their junior years because of difficulties with Praxis I. Presley says the cost of retaking tests, which ultimately can add up to several hundred dollars, is prohibitive.

The conference was organized by Dr. Linda H. Scatton, the senior program administrator for the Policy Evaluation and Research Center at ETS, and Katherine Bassett, director of client relations for the Praxis program.

“We both share a desire to have more minority teachers in the classroom,” Scatton said, adding that the invitational conference was in response to concerns heard at meetings ETS held on several HBCU campuses, including Morgan State, Florida A&M, and North Carolina A&T State universities. The next meeting will be held at TSU in April.

Presley says TSU is using a $100,000 grant from the Tom Joyner Foundation to conduct pre-Praxis workshops and to defray test-taking costs for the students (see page 10). At Norfolk State University, only about 27 percent of its students passed the Praxis I five years ago. Now, students must take a Praxis lab before attempting the test. Pass rates are now between 97 percent and 100 percent, says Shelly Hunter, the lab’s coordinator. 

For more information on upcoming HBCU/ETS meetings,
e-mail Scatton at
[email protected] or call (609) 734-5637.

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