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INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana is poised to dramatically overhaul the way it determines whether educators are qualified to become principals.

Starting in the fall of 2013, Indiana will abandon its mostly multiple-choice test for the administrator license required to become a principal or vice principal.

Instead, the new test will feature “real practical, applicable scenarios—case-study kinds of things—that actually show that you know what you’re talking about,” said Marg Mast, director of educator effectiveness and leadership in Indiana’s state department of education.

Several states are discussing the idea of creating a new principal certification test, but Indiana is the only one currently doing so, according to Ben Fenton, co-founder and chief strategy and knowledge officer of New Leaders, a New York City-based nonprofit group that trains principals in 12 urban areas across the country.

Teacher evaluations

The Hechinger Report and Indianapolis Star have teamed up to produce a series on new teacher effectiveness measures in Indiana.

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You can also read our previous series on the similar issues in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Florida.

The change is coming at a time when the job demands of school leaders are shifting dramatically and when Indiana—like many states—has increased the number of teacher observations that administrators must conduct each year as well as the amount of feedback they must provide.

Starting this fall, all teachers in Indiana will be observed at least four times a year by school administrators.

“That has really shone the spotlight on principal preparation,” Mast said, “and whether people have the capacity to do the work we’re asking them to do.”

Some of it requires intuition and solid problem-solving skills, said Pam Hardy, principal at Garden City Elementary School in Wayne Township.

“In many cases, these are 22-year-olds coming into the profession and they are doing what they think is best,” she said. “As a principal, you learn that from experience” and get better at helping teachers improve.

Indiana is betting that a heavy focus on principals’ teacher-evaluation skills will make a difference.

Research has shown that having an effective principal in a school is nearly as important as having an effective teacher in the classroom. A 2009 study by New Leaders found that principal effectiveness accounts for 25 percent of a school’s impact on student gains, while teacher effectiveness accounts for 33 percent.

Illinois and Kentucky are in the process of changing their accreditation standards for principal-preparation programs. Other states, such as Louisiana, are considering ways to rate such programs.

“A number of states are doing things on the principal-preparation front,” said Fenton, of New Leaders. “But what is so interesting about Indiana is [the department of education is saying], ‘Could we take a stronger role in … certifying which educators are ready to be principals?’ “

Indiana, like most states, now uses a test for principals developed by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service. The test has 100 multiple-choice questions and seven short essay questions on it.

Kris Kingery, a first-year principal at Eagle Elementary School in Pike Township, remembers taking the test four years ago. The essay questions, he said, were mostly reactive.

“It would say something that happened and ask what you do,” he said. “Maybe a child has measles or there’s been a fight in the cafeteria.”

The new test might instead describe a teaching problem the principal candidate might observe in the classroom and ask how the candidate would react to it.

Kingery thought that might be useful. Among the more valuable classes in his principal training program was one on evaluation in which they watched videos of lessons and discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the teachers.

“It was really helpful to hear what other people were seeing, especially when it was different from what I was seeing,” he said. “They might have had a different definition of what student engagement was. Their districts might be different in philosophy. It was nice to hear their perspectives and why they felt that way.”

Still, Mark Pugh, principal of high-achieving Indianapolis Public School 90, said there should be a balance. Principals have to be prepared not only to perform effective evaluations but the day-to-day challenges of the job.

“There are many situations as an administrator that you are presented with,” he said, “and you have to have a solution, and fairly quickly.”

Also, different leadership styles work for different principals. Training, Pugh said, should allow people to think about their style and how to make it work in various settings. And new administrators also have to be willing to take on tough tasks—which is hard to teach.

“It’s a lot easier to plan out a scenario about what you say to a teacher,” he said. “It is a much stronger test of character and courage to have the face-to-face conversation with that person.”

Indiana’s new test is under development with New Jersey-based Pearson Education, which is a major national player in standardized testing for students and future teachers alike.

Pearson, which already creates teacher certification tests for 17 states, says it hopes the exam will become the new standard across the country.

But, for now, Indiana is striking out on its own—and that concerns John Somers, director of graduate programs in the School of Education at the University of Indianapolis.

“I think any teacher- or principal-preparation program needs some kind of national test,” he said, “so you can compare your candidates against other candidates on the national level.”

Leaders of other principal-preparation programs are supportive of the new test and standards, but say they won’t be a cure-all.

“It’s really easy to just respond to a set of skills or competencies and lose sight of these larger values and beliefs,” said Gary Crow, chair of the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department at Indiana University.

He added that successful leaders are “not just those who know how to use data. They also have this sense of urgency. That’s something that’s beyond a set of skills and competencies.”

A version of this story appeared in The Indianapolis Star on March 18, 2012.

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