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The Principles of Principal Assessment

Many states are testing new principals and eliminating established principals' tenure. Will these measures improve our schools? And after the dust settles, and all evaluation is complete, will there be enough qualified principals left to staff our schools?

In the U.S., nearly 80,000 public elementary and high school principals oversee the work of some 3 million teachers and 52 million students. While most U.S. states require prospective teachers to pass a qualifying test, few require their principals to be held to the same standard. According to an April telephone poll, most Americans would like to see that discrepancy addressed.

"More than half of those polled agreed that testing new principals before they are licensed is about as important as testing prospective teachers. Another 22 percent said it was more important," states a May 6 Education Week article about the survey (Licensing Exam for Principal Candidates Unveiled).

Fewer than 15 percent of the 1,013 Americans polled opposed the idea.

In order to ensure that administrators are indeed held to the same standards as their staff, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), working with a 23-state group -- the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium (ISLLC) -- developed a new principal licensure exam. Field-tested since last November, the group unveiled the new six-hour exam this April. Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia have already adopted it; and twelve to fifteen additional states are expected to do so within five years. According to Neil Shipman, director of the ISLLC, twenty-four states have already endorsed the test's standards.

Although prospective principals may do well in course work, many feel it is essential to know how well the candidates can apply that knowledge to the situations they may face on the job. ETS officials believe the new principal licensure exam will "help measure prospective principals against new professional standards aimed at improving teaching and learning." The new test will be scored by administrators trained by the ETS. A candidate will either pass or fail, the minimum score to be set by authorities in each state. The licensing test will cost $450.00.


Aware that testing and licensing new principals by itself will not ensure the success of our schools, many states are also eliminating established principals' tenure. Critics of tenure say it can act as a shield for mediocrity and incompetence. In areas where tenure exists, removing sub-standard principals is very costly and time-consuming. Explained Judith Rizzo, New York City deputy chancellor for instruction, "Unless you can prove something they can go to jail for, they are entitled to a job, a salary, and a benefit."

As of March 1998, according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), in about 16 states principals receive tenure or equivalent rights to a continuing contract and cannot be removed except for legally recognized reasons spelled out in state laws or regulations. The states of Georgia, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon, and part of Wisconsin recently rescinded principals' tenure; and New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania are considering it. In Michigan, state law offers tenure to all certified educators including principals, but most districts there require principals to sign contracts waiving tenure rights.


Most principals interviewed for a May 20 Education Week article (In Age of Accountability, Principals Feel the Heat) endorse the concept of accountability. They accept that their schools should be held accountable for their students' learning; however, many problems still exist in the evaluation system. Accountability systems that focus on student test performance (scores on standardized tests) are fraught with difficulties, as are accountability systems that focus on improvement. Many of those systems do not take into consideration issues such as parental involvement and demographics.

"A reality of American life is that the have-nots have a harder road to pave than the haves," Laurence Fieber, principal at Parkway Elementary School near Trenton, New Jersey, told Education Week.

And in schools with small numbers in each grade, poor performance by a few students can dramatically affect overall scores, and a school that does extremely well the first year may have a difficult time maintaining that achievement level.


In the District of Columbia, evaluation of principals is now based on a laundry list of characteristics that can affect a school [Washington Post, "Parents Watching as Schools Begin Assessments of Principals," May 14, 1998]. Academic performance (scores on standardized tests) accounts for 50 percent of a principal's evaluation; "school climate" accounts for 10 percent; parent and community involvement, 10 percent; human resource management, 10 percent; fiscal resource management, 10 percent; and overall leadership, 10 percent. Assessments are made by five-member teams composed of parents, retired school administrators, and others.

During recent evaluations under this plan, several problems emerged. In some schools, principals orchestrated the planned visits, sometimes hand-picking the people the evaluators interviewed. Some incidents even occurred in which problem students were encouraged to stay home on the days of standardized testing so their scores would not count.


The effect of doing poorly on standardized tests can be dire. Schools are often faced with the possibility of state takeovers if their standardized test performance is poor. Standardized test results can affect principals in many ways:

  • Principals in a number of states -- including Connecticut, New York, and Louisiana -- have recently been accused of test tampering.
  • In Baltimore, more than 40 principals were placed on professional "improvement plans" last year [Baltimore Sun, "Principals Get Pink Slip: Baltimore Gets Tough" June 9, 1998]. Whereas in the past principals of poorly performing schools were simply reassigned to other schools, now they are being assigned other duties, in many cases ones with less prestige and less salary.
  • Last year in North Carolina principals of struggling schools were threatened with suspension.
  • In Cincinnati, a principal's pay is now linked to school test results.
  • In Kentucky, educators receive additional funding when students achieve, but face very close scrutiny if they do not.

In such an extremely pressurized atmosphere, low morale can be a problem. Some principals choose to retire rather than face the pressure. A recent ETS study revealed that, not surprisingly, there is an increasing shortage of qualified administrative candidates especially in secondary schools and urban settings.


Faced with schools fraught with problems, the nation has attempted to improve schools first by asking teachers and then principals to meet new professional standards. Starting this fall, principal candidates in some regions will need to pass an exam that is six-hours long and costs $450.00 before they can become licensed. In other regions established principals have lost tenure, and school officials are implementing year-by-year contracts in an often politicized educational environment.

Excellent administrators in the business sector can expect to pull down significant salaries and receive substantial job perks. Should excellent administrators who are principals expect comparable salaries and perks? This is an age of accountability, but as the bar is raised, will principals' salaries rise? Will the job hold more prestige? Will work hours be adjusted? And what inducement is there for the best and brightest to enter this field? Just as many competent people are not choosing to become teachers, many are not choosing to become principals. When an intelligent college student looks at the field of education versus other opportunities available, education is frequently not the first choice.

Arlene Ackerman, school superintendent in Washington, D.C., has vowed to search the country for qualified principals [Washington Post, "Parents Watching as Schools Begin Assessments of Principals," May 14, 1998]. But given the demands of the job and the salaries offered, it might be really hard for her system and others to attract and then keep those qualified candidates.

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