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May 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 8

A Critique of the Test for School Leaders

An examination required for school administrator certification in several states rewards test takers who generate glib sound bites rather than those who engage in thoughtful, reflective discourse.

After years of testing teachers and students, school leaders are now the targets of the testing industry. Educational Testing Service has developed an examination based on the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium national standards for school administrators, which are replacing state standards across the United States. (See the list of standards on p. 69.) The Educational Testing Service exam is required for school administrator certification in several states. Because the standards and the new test may drive the preparation of future education leaders, we should examine both more closely.
Each of the six Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium national standards includes a list of knowledge areas, dispositions, and performances that address what school leaders should know, how they should act, and what they should be able to do (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1996). The good news is that instructional leadership takes a central position in the standards. For example, “a vision of learning” constitutes the core concern of the first standard (p. 10). The first disposition listed under standard two is, “The administrator believes in, values, and is committed to student learning as the fundamental purpose of schooling” (p. 12). To many veterans of education administration, a focus on instructional leadership is a welcome shift from administration as management.
Those involved in developing the standards defend the importance that they have placed on instructional leadership: The actor we worked hard to position on center stage—learning and teaching yoked to student performance—would get displaced quickly if we populated the stage with all the relevant players who could make legitimate claims to space. (Murphy, Jost, & Shipman, 2000, p. 23)
Centering the standards on instructional leadership is a positive development, but the standards are silent about what kind of teaching and learning should take place and what instructional leadership looks like. Nowhere do the standards mention how teaching and learning might be “yoked” to communities, diversity, citizenship, our increasingly stratified labor force, or the “hidden” curriculum.
If the standards don't take a position on these issues, others will fill in the silence. And that is what has happened: Although the standards themselves are fairly predictable and benign, a closer inspection of the set of sample questions and answers provided by the Educational Testing Service exam bulletin suggests that those who have developed and scored the exam have interpreted the standards narrowly.

Standardizing Instructional Leaders

In many ways, the idea of an examination for school leaders contradicts one of the premises of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, which designed the standards and which acknowledges that “effective leaders often espouse different patterns of beliefs and act differently from the norm in the profession” (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1996, p. 5). Identifying standards that represent the norm of the profession while encouraging discussion and debate is one thing; it is quite another to socialize all prospective school leaders, as the examination attempts to do. The test booklet's glib, depoliticized, decontextualized “exemplary” answers promote a new administrative discourse that banishes complexity, conflict, and critical reflection.
The exam bulletin provides examinees with sample case studies and some exemplary responses. Each exam question has a series of rubrics that represent correct answers. One test item, for example, asks the exam taker to read a brief vignette and then “evaluate the principal's action from the point of view of teaching and learning” (Educational Testing Service, 1999, p. 36). In the vignette, a high school student is failing all of his classes and wants to drop his physics class, which is not required for graduation. There are five “correct” responses; to receive full points, the examinee must mention two of the five correct responses.
The respondents who received full points cite at least two of the correct responses, but their responses also include elements that educators could view as problematic. One of the respondents who received a perfect score suggests, “The parent might also want to hire a tutor in any area that is giving the student specific trouble” (p. 42). Though Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standard 6 emphasizes “the importance of diversity and equity in a democratic society” (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1996, p. 20), the test scorers were not concerned about the respondent's apparent inability to understand that most poor parents cannot afford to hire a tutor. Schools that take issues of poverty seriously provide after-school and Saturday tutoring for students. The ability of middle- and upper-class parents to use their own resources to hire extra help for their children is one of several reasons that student academic achievement correlates so highly with social class. Nevertheless, the respondent lost no points for this insensitivity to social class differences and the responsibility of the school to provide the failing student with extra help.
The same respondent continues, “I would also want the counselor to work with the student on his mental attitude” (Educational Testing Service, 1999, p. 42). Nowhere does the respondent acknowledge that school failure is an interactive social construction or suggest that school professionals may need to reflect on their own attitudes toward the failing student. Test scorers didn't subtract any points from the respondent for pinning the problem on the student or for dismissing as psychological what might be a broader problem that the school might need to own partly as well. The tendency of respondents to psychologize and individualize problems, leaving school professionals and broader social injustices blameless, emerges as a theme across all the sample exercises. The safest answers are decontextualized and depoliticized, blaming the individual students and families for any problems.

Leadership as Public Relations

Most exemplary instructional leaders would agree that, particularly in low-income schools, good instruction builds on the knowledge, learning styles, and concerns that students bring with them to school. These leaders also desire the active participation of parents in all aspects of school life. By contrast, the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards tend to rely both on the rhetoric of participation and collaboration and on a set of assumptions grounded in a public relations model. The exam highlights this contradiction, unabashedly promoting a public relations approach to community involvement that fails to link parents and communities to student achievement. Throughout the test bulletin, the phrasing of similar sample questions reinforces and elicits a particular type of answer.
One sample exercise provides the respondent with a school fact sheet and a data set that include district demographic information and the previous principal's school improvement plan. The respondent must make a series of decisions, including determining the “strategies you would implement to elicit the community's support of the school improvement plan” (Educational Testing Service, 1999, p. 38). The exam question's wording already suggests a preference for a public relations model over a democratic participation model: The school leader has already made certain decisions about the school improvement plan, and the issue now is how to secure the “community's support.”
The test bulletin provides two sample exemplary answers, both of which received full points. Both answers promote a public relations approach. Respondent 2 articulates an explicit, unambiguous public relations approach to community relations: The broad based issues the school must resolve are in the areas of communication and public relations. . . . There is a need for communication and p.r. . . . Whenever there is a letter writing campaign, this issue as a public relations concern must be addressed . . . or a domino effect will likely occur [The sample exercise included a single letter from a parent concerned about the school's use of cooperative learning]. . . . The public at large also needs to be educated. Although the PTA is an effective arm of the school, there needs to be budgetary line items allotted to parent training. (Educational Testing Service, 1999, p. 42)
Another respondent, who emphasizes the importance of promoting community participation in decision making and suggests implications for instructional leadership, received only two of the three available points. This respondent articulates an explicit, unambiguous democratic participation approach. Unlike respondent 2, who never explicitly links the issues to instruction, this respondent makes instructional issues central: What specific changes have to be made based on research, staff, parent and community input? . . . Meet with PTA, Educational Council, Board members, community representatives. Gather input. Discuss concerns/what is cooperative learning? . . . Involve all members of community in planning. Special effort made to elicit help from parents/people in new housing project. . . . Report card committee can work on alternative assessment and how to report to parents. (p. 44)
This respondent is more focused on the democratic participation of the community and on instruction—and other parts of the response indicate an inquiry approach to problem-solving, an understanding that multiple models of cooperative learning exist, and a strong commitment to cultural diversity and ongoing evaluation. Unfortunately, the exam provides no rubrics to cover those areas. For instance, one rubric indicates that the respondent should “address the implications of a growing, more diverse community and student population and declining test scores” (p. 38). Will any implications do? The respondent who lost points goes to great lengths to respond to the community's changing cultural diversity and, unlike the first two respondents, does not use code words to do so: Given the change in the complexion, socioeconomic, and presumed racial and ethnic makeup of the district, there is a need to address the differences and multicultural aspect of the school. . . . Stress differences in background, initiate cultural fairs, “Proud to Be Me,” Affirmations Week, lunch with principal, and peer leadership and mediation groups at all grade levels. . . . Utilize cultural diversity issues and needs to look at alternative methods of instruction and project-based as well as alternative assessment along with differing learning styles and approaches. (p. 44)
Meanwhile, the respondents who received full points largely gloss over issues of class and race and their impact on instruction, apparently perceiving the new population largely as an inconvenience with the potential to create conflict. Respondent 1 comments, The different socioeconomic groups will need to be assimilated into the school population. The school climate/culture may need to change and adapt in order to prevent possible conflict between groups. (p. 42)
Respondents 1 and 2 appear to operate out of a deficit theory, seeing diversity as a problem of assimilation and conflict avoidance. Because technically they do discuss the implications of a changing community, however, they have addressed the rubric and they receive full points. This suggests an inherent problem with rubrics: They represent a crude attempt to rate complex narrative answers with a point system, to quantify qualitative data. The respondents who address the greatest number of rubrics receive the highest grades, even if their work is generally mediocre and they include problematic ideas that contradict the standards themselves.

Glib But Convincing

If the Educational Testing Service exam drives the curriculum of administrator preparation programs, such programs will increasingly find themselves providing future administrators with “safe” discourses that will not offend pluralist interest groups. The test rewards respondents who keep issues at a superficial level. Although time constraints are a factor in any exam situation, glibness seems to be a shared characteristic of the answers that received full points. In nearly every case, respondent 3 addresses issues in greater depth and complexity than the other two respondents—both of whom received full points because they address more of the rubrics, even though they often answer with sound bites. More important, according to the test scorers, is that respondent 3's answers were not as “convincing” as the others.
What makes an answer “convincing”? Are responses more convincing when they are written in depoliticized, decontextualized language? Are they less convincing if they are thoughtful and raise more questions than they answer? Are they less convincing if they suggest that the respondent views schools and school improvement as complex and messy endeavors that require debate and reflection?
None of the responses in the booklet indicates that a respondent has read any professional literature or knows much about either instruction or leadership. No respondent alludes to, much less cites, an education author. Respondents occasionally refer to specific instructional programs, such as Reading Recovery, or general approaches, such as cooperative learning, but responses do not indicate that important conceptual debates exist about instructional methods, approaches to school governance, or the role of schools in society. Responses do not suggest that any of these future education leaders read anything beyond technical manuals and administrative textbooks. One respondent lost points because the test scorer felt that “throughout, responses are weakened by suggestions for solutions that are outside the principal's control, specifically the suggestions to redistrict and to increase the staff” (Educational Testing Service, 1999, p. 48). The exam seems to fuel the notion that well-educated school leaders with a commitment to equitable and rigorous instruction should be replaced by glib technocrats with brief, clear, and “convincing” answers to every problem.
The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards reflect mainstream thinking in education: They move instructional leadership to center stage, emphasize parent involvement, advocate the idea that all students can learn, promote professional growth, and call for safer schools. Embedded in the language of the standards, however, lurk the old assumptions of a conservative field that has historically been more heavily influenced by military science (“strategic planning”), engineering (“alignment,” “operational procedures,” “core technology”), industrial psychology (“human resources management”), and business (“entrepreneurship,” “ownership,” “marketing strategies”) than by education itself.
If the test bulletin is any indication, the standards exam promotes a narrow view of instructional leadership, missing a golden opportunity to promote the ways that leaders of outstanding, low-income schools support effective and empowering instruction. Unfortunately, the extent to which an assessment of any kind is an appropriate tool for developing such leaders is a discussion in which the rest of us apparently will not be invited to participate.
Standards for School Leaders

Standards for School Leaders

In 1996, the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium developed a set of national standards for school leaders (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1996). The standards endorse the notion that a school administrator is an education leader who promotes the success of all students by

  • Facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community.

  • Advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth.

  • Ensuring management of the organization, operations, and resources for a safe, efficient, and effective learning environment.

  • Collaborating with families and community members, responding to diverse community interests and needs, and mobilizing community resources.

  • Acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner.

  • Understanding, responding to, and influencing the larger political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context.

For more information on the standards, see the Council of Chief State School Officers' Web site (www.ccsso.org).


Council of Chief State School Officers. (1996). The Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards for school leaders. Washington, DC: Author.

Educational Testing Service. (1999). School leaders licensure assessment: 1999–2000 registration bulletin. Princeton, NJ: Author.

Murphy, J., Jost Y., & Shipman, N. (2000). Implementation of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium standards. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 3(1), 17–39.

End Notes

1 For a more extensive elaboration on this evidence, see Anderson, G. L. (2001). Disciplining leaders: A critical discourse analysis of the ISLLC national examination and performance standards in educational administration. International Journal of Leadership in Education, 4(3), 199–216.

Gary L. Anderson has been a contributor for Educational Leadership.

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