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A test for the people in charge

The bad news on the education front is that Washington is hopelessly gridlocked. The good news is that the states are moving ahead on their own.

Both points came sharply into focus last week. The House and Senate passed education bills that are headed for vetoes by President Clinton. The Republicans wouldn't do what he wants on national standards and testing, on school construction subsidies or funds to hire more teachers. So he won't let them do what they want on scholarships and vouchers that families of grade-school and high-school youngsters could use for private schools.

It's easy to dismiss this as the politics of spite. A lot of it has to do with posturing for favorite constituencies. But there's also a fundamental difference of opinion between the parties on the best way to improve the performance of many U.S. schools. Clinton wants to pump money into public schools and demand better results. Republicans want to force them to compete against private schools for students.

As is often the case, however, while Washington dithers, the states are acting. The latest step is so obvious it should have happened years ago but is nonetheless welcome now.

Everyone recognizes that the key person in any school is the principal. There are almost 80,000 of them in public schools, supervising the work of some 3-million teachers and the education of 52-million students.

In recent years, almost all states have moved aggressively to test pupils' performance and link test results to promotion and graduation requirements. Many have set higher standards for teachers as well. Missing until now was any recognized standard and test for the people in charge.

No longer. Last week the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Educational Testing Service rolled out the first exam specifically designed to judge the qualifications of men and women who want to be principals. It has been adopted for use starting this fall in Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi and North Carolina. Gordon Ambach of the school officers association told me he expects it to be in about a third of the states within a few years.

Few states test would-be principals today. Typically, local school boards look for a master's degree in educational administration, several years of classroom experience and often some kind of management internship. Ambach said testing did not imply dissatisfaction with the current crop, but he pointed out that "people who have been trained to administer or manage may not be as well equipped to handle the increasing demand for leadership on teaching and learning, the core functions of a school."

Two-thirds of the principals are men, and among them, the most frequent experience in teaching _ for almost 40 percent of them _ has been coaching athletics. Nothing wrong with that, but higher school standards have to reach beyond the football field and the basketball court.

The six-hour exam unveiled last week requires applicants to write lengthy responses explaining how they would deal with real-world problems in the schools. Examples range from a parent's request that a youngster be excused from a holiday concert including music from other religions to framing an academic improvement plan for a school with an increasingly diverse student body.

Ted Greenleaf of the National Association of Elementary School Principals pointed out, "People who do well on a paper and pencil test may not live up to their score on the job. But," he added, "it's worth a try."

Robert Mahaffey of the counterpart organization for secondary school principals offered a more substantive qualifier to the general approval his group has given the tests. "This is a very small piece of the puzzle," he said. "It comes at the end of the preparation process. We need something at the front end to weed out those who do not belong in the field of school administration. And we need to improve their preparation."

Ambach concedes more needs to be done. The school officers association is working now on an evaluation form school boards can use to judge the job performance of current principals.

But all this is a lot more productive than the noisy battles up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Washington Post Writers Group

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