Testing Superintendents

Missouri becomes the first to require a written exam for state certification, but some wonder why by Kate Beem

Frank Rowles had spent more than 20 years as a professional educator by the time he became superintendent of the Osceola, Mo., public schools last year.


He had experience as a building adminis-trator, he had the knowledge, he had the degree—a specialist in education. But he hadn’t worked as a superintendent in the Show-Me State, and that meant Rowles spent the Saturday morning before Thanksgiving taking a three-hour written exam aimed at proving he knows his stuff.

The School Superintendent Assessment has arrived in Missouri. Whether that’s a good thing depends on whom you ask.

Upholding Standards

Missouri is the first and only state to fully embrace the exam, based on the 1996 school leadership standards of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium and administered by the Educational Testing Service. Proponents say the exam, first administered in October 2000, is a natural outgrowth of the standards, developed under the guidance of the Council of Chief State School Officers and adopted by 35 states.

The standards seek to establish clear expectations of school leaders. School superintendents shouldn’t have just a passing knowledge of how teaching and learning works. Understanding pedagogy should form the basis upon which their subsequent experience is built.

“It’s a statement of values about where the profession should be,’’ says Joseph Murphy, an Ohio State University professor and the consortium’s chairman. "The field should be about teaching and learning.”

Just as students in 49 states take standardized assessments that judge whether they know and understand subjects from reading to science, those who wish to lead school districts should prove they know what they’re talking about too, the test’s proponents say. The School Superintendent Assessment, or SSA, consisting of nine scenario-based questions, attempts to weed out who does not have what it takes to lead a public school system. (See related story)

With more than half the states using the ISLLC standards to guide the curricula of educational administration programs at graduate universities, the use of the SSA as a sort of exit exam should cause few ripples, says John Holloway, program administrator of the Teacher Quality Initiative at the Educational Testing Service, based in Princeton, N.J.

In 1998, ETS introduced the School Leaders Licensure Assessment, a six-hour written exam used by 10 states to license building principals. The SLLA, also based on the interstate consortium’s standards, is a sort of precursor to the SSA, Holloway says.

“The thinking is, states that have this process would have candidates take the SLLA first,’’ he explains. “Candidates would work toward their superintendent’s certificate.’’

Dubious Requirement

That works in theory, and it’s no problem for superintendent candidates coming up through a state’s educational system. But that process can throw a wrench into the plans of sitting superintendents who’d like to move from a state that doesn’t use the assessment to one that does.

So far, Missouri has no plans to issue waivers for experience to superintendents entering the state from other locales, despite their previous work record. If candidates don’t hold valid Missouri superintendent certificates, they must pass the exam before or during their first year on the job.

That’s what peeves Stephen Kleinsmith, who passed the SSA the first time it was administered in October 2000. (See related story) Now superintendent of the 3,700-student Nixa, Mo., public schools in southwest Missouri, Kleinsmith, 46, came to Missouri from the 17,600-student Millard School District in suburban Omaha. With a doctorate of education in educational administration and leadership from the University of South Dakota and years of experience in Nebraska and Iowa as a teacher, elementary principal, high school principal and district-level administrator, Kleinsmith knew he was qualified for the job. Yet that didn’t matter to Missouri’s state education agency.

“I could have had multiple degrees, and I’d still have to take the assessment in the first year on the job,” Kleinsmith says.

Even the test’s supporters agree that requirement is a little dubious.

“The key question is, is this instrument better for those who haven’t been a superintendent?’’ asks Jerry Cooper, a former Missouri superintendent and an assistant dean in the school of education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “If someone has been successful in other states, why be assessed?’’

Missouri’s Adoption

That Missouri is the first state to adopt the SSA as a requirement for superintendent certification doesn’t surprise many in the state.

Following passage of the state’s Excellence in Education Act, the state has required since 1986 anyone seeking a superintendent certificate to pass some form of leadership assessment, says D. Kent King, the state commissioner of education. Candidates from other states always were included.

For most of the last 14 years, the state used a model developed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. It required a two-day visit to one of the state’s assessment centers for a round of tests, professional activities and simulated situations school leaders might face. The process was time-consuming and often didn’t have much bearing on a superintendent’s job, King contends.

Because of how long it took to administer and score the assessment, a backlog of applicants developed for state certification. By the time the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium came along with its promise of devising a more relevant test, Missouri was ready for a change.

“The feeling was it was definitely time to upgrade to get an assessment that was reflective more of the administrator’s need to get involved in instruction,” King says.

Missouri joined ISLLC in 1994, adopting the standards a few years later. Statewide, colleges and universities with education schools and programs began changing their curricula to fit the standards. When the state adopted the School Leaders Licensure Assessment for new school principals in 1998, those teaching the future administrators felt their students were prepared to demonstrate knowledge of the standards.

Gauging Skills

Along with North Carolina, Missouri provided funding for the development of the School Superintendent Assessment. In October 2000, Missouri became the first state to administer the exam. State education leaders saw it as a the next logical step, following the successful use of the SLLA, says Jim Machell, an education professor at Central Missouri State University in Warrensburg.

“It’s based on the same set of standards commonly embraced and accepted across the country,” Machell says. “That’s reasonable.”

And it’s a better test, proponents say. The SSA is designed to test whether its takers have a good grasp of the ISLLC standards. Like its cousins across the standards movement, the test gauges knowledge and ability, not seat time in a classroom, says Richard Andrews, dean of the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Education.

While test critics charge that it might deter potential superintendents from becoming certified as the state teeters on the cusp of an administrator shortage, Holloway doesn’t think so. Nationally, there’s no dearth of certified administrators. But those holding certificates aren’t necessarily applying for jobs. In Missouri, for instance, 8,000 persons hold building-principal licenses. Only 2,200 are employed by the state right now, according to Doug Miller of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Leadership Academy.

The administrator shortage points to a need to attain high-quality leaders at a time when it might be easy to hire less-than-stellar candidates, Holloway says. States could use the ISLLC standards and the tests based on them to feel confident about the applicants they hire, he adds. “They just can’t water down their license expectancy because there’s a shortage of candidates. It’s got to be the reverse.”

No Big Deal

Educators who’ve been raised in the test-happy educational environment won’t bat an eye at taking what amounts to an exit exam.

That certainly was the case for Vici Hughes. The elementary school principal viewed the School Superintendent Assessment as just another step in her professional development. Someday Hughes, who is 46, hopes to become a central-office administrator, possibly in the 12,600-student Blue Springs School District in the suburbs of Kansas City.

Before becoming a building administrator, Hughes had taken the previous multi-day assessment the state required. In contrast, the three-hour SSA was a breeze, she says. She preferred the written exam to its predecessor.

Rowles, superintendent of the 504-student Osceola School District in southwestern Missouri, wasn’t relishing the thought of taking a test to continue on his career path. But as a University of Missouri-Columbia doctoral student, he found solid preparation in his graduate coursework.

“I would rather not take it, but I know I have to so I’m resigned to that fact,” says Rowles, 44.

Will Testing Spread?

Yet questions linger among some in the state as to whether a written test really can determine whether an individual is superintendent material. Missouri’s old superintendent assessment was cumbersome and expensive to administer, Cooper readily agrees. But it yielded the kind of rich data a written test never could, he says.

“I think the more data you have, the more likely success you’re going to have,’’ he says. “When you have people in real situations and under the gun, I think it does cause people to act a little differently.”

That’s Kleinsmith’s point, too. He said the questions stemming from the nine vignettes he encountered on the School Superintendent Assessment could easily be answered by anyone who understood how organizations work and how the leader fits in. The questions, he complains, were more academic than practical.

After taking the test in November, Rowles would agree. It was easy to see where the questions were leading test-takers, he says. The answers needed to reflect a caring attitude and the ability to seek out others’ opinions, not autocratic responses that didn’t involve others in the decision-making process.

"To be honest, I don’t know if it really shows if anyone is a good superintendent or not,’" Rowles says.

Seventy-three percent of the 108 persons who took the first SSA administration in October 2000 passed the test. Of the 67 candidates who took the test in April 2001, 84 percent scored at least a 153, the passing score for Missouri. The maximum score is 200.

The state gave the SSA in November 2001 to Rowles and about 70 other candidates for superintendent licensure. Missouri also will field-test a portfolio assessment for school principals this summer. Other states are hoping to follow Missouri’s lead, but educational politics work differently in each state, says Wayne Martin, director of the State Education Assessment Center of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

For example, ISLLC leaders had hoped North Carolina would begin testing its superintendent candidates soon, considering the state provided funding to design the test. But budget constraints are hindering the Tar Heel State’s buy-in.

Adoption and implementation can be lengthy, beginning with approval from the state professional standards board or state board of education. Then the state must set its own standards upon which to base the superintendent exam. Finally, the state would contract with the Educational Testing Service.

Several states have completed the standards-setting phase or are in the midst of doing so, Martin says. They include Pennsylvania, Indiana, Nevada, Arkansas and Alaska. Delaware and Rhode Island are interested in the SSA but have not yet begun the test adoption process. Add to that number the states giving the ETS exam for site administrators, which includes Kentucky, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia—and the SSA is off to a rolling start.

“Once you start (standard setting), it’s like getting the raft into the whitewater,” Murphy says.

This means it’s a matter of time until Missouri doesn’t stand alone. Soon fledgling superintendents in many places and sitting superintendents moving into another state will be tested to gauge their competence as a rite of passage, some predict.

Says Andrews, the education dean at the University of Missouri-Columbia: “If you’re going to require certificates, you should have to take a test.”

Kate Beem is a free-lance education writer in Kansas City, Mo. E-mail: ksbeem@home.com