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USF wins key teacher exam role

The school's Institute for Instructional Research and Practice has been chosen to develop and administer the state's teacher certification test.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


TAMPA -- Each year, almost 15,000 people take the Florida teacher certification test.

The task of coming up with the 100-question test now belongs to the University of South Florida's Institute for Instructional Research and Practice.

The Institute recently won a $17-million grant from the state to develop and administer the certification test and update the CLAST exam for college sophomores. Part of the job is to enable applicants to take the certification test by computer, which hasn't been done before.

It might comfort applicants to know, as they struggle to come up with the right answers, that putting together such a test is much harder than taking it.

Each exam must pass muster for accuracy, effectiveness, reliability, consistency and lack of bias before anyone takes it, said USF Professor Neal Berger. Every question is written by experts, then scrutinized by other experts and tested by still other experts.

The extraordinary amount of care is necessary. "It's a very high-stakes test," Berger said. "It determines whether a person is going to have a career in that field."

Before the test questions can be written, Institute staffers must come up with a blueprint for each of the 46 subject-area tests comprising the certification exam. This means, for example, deciding what knowledge a seventh-grade history teacher needs to have and how much of it. What percentage of the test should be on American history and what on world history?

Once the blueprint is done, specifications are written for every question. These are directions for the test-question writers: the kind of cognitive skill the question should test, such as recall or problem solving, and what knowledge the question should measure.

For example, does that would-be history teacher need to know whose assassination started World War I, or just what year the United States entered it? Should the answer format be multiple-choice or require an essay?

Meanwhile, the Institute solicits recommendations from teacher unions, superintendents and others to find 12 to 15 gifted, knowledgeable Florida teachers in each subject area. The group must be chosen with an eye on diversity, from ethnic to geographic.

These people are given the question specifications, along with the standards and recommendations of professional teacher groups in that subject area, and told to come up with several hundred questions.

When they're finished, a validation team checks the questions: How clearly is the question written? Is more than one correct answer possible?

Next, another group looks the questions over for unintentional bias against minorities. Will a question about President Franklin Roosevelt's use of a wheelchair offend handicapped applicants? Or, would failure to include a question about it bother anyone?

Finally, portions of the test are field-tested.

"If everyone misses an item, you have to take a look at it," Berger said.

The last step is figuring out the passing score. Another diverse group of experts first estimates what that would be, then takes the test and compares the group's scores with their estimates. The passing score chosen is a judgment call, Berger said.

The Institute already has tens of thousands of test questions stored in a "bank." Exams are a different combination each year of stored questions and new ones.

Security measures by the state Education Department ensure that nobody outside its own staff ever sees the entire test.

- Linda Gibson can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or at gibson@sptimes.com.

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