Original URL: http://www.dailystar.com/dailystar/metro/8491.php

Law forces aides to prove skills
By Sarah Garrecht Gassen

Passing an exam is often the only way to keep job

Local teacher aides are turning to standardized tests as a way to prove they have the basic math, reading and writing skills they now need to keep their jobs under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

School employees who work closely with students - such as teacher aides - must have an associate's degree, 60 hours of college credit or pass an equivalency test.

New hires must have those credentials when they're hired, but current employees have until January 2006 to meet the requirements.

Schools are looking to colleges and professionals who might want a part-time job as potential teacher aides instead of drawing from the traditional pool of parent volunteers.

The Arizona Department of Education has approved tests such as ParaPro, the most commonly used, Work Keys and ParaEducator Learning Network as a way for aides who do not have a college degree or credits to meet the federal requirements.

The tests are supposed to make sure aides have a minimum amount of basic skills and can help students learn those skills, said Kathy Wiebke, Arizona deputy associate superintendent.

But even though the aides have time, pressure is mounting on local school districts as they struggle to find qualified people willing to take the generally low-paying instructional aide jobs.

In the Tucson Unified School District, teacher aides earn about $10 an hour.

At the same time, districts are working to make sure their current aides can meet the requirements to keep their jobs. Otherwise, districts will face a shortage when the new requirements go into effect in 2006.

"I lost some people who were good with kids but they were just a couple questions shy of passing the test and didn't want to take it again," said Marco Ramirez, principal of TUSD's Pueblo Gardens Elementary School, near South Campbell Avenue and East 36th Street.

TUSD, for example, has 399 employees - about half of all its aides - who must pass the equivalency test or earn enough college credits to keep their jobs. Of those, 223 are in special education, a field that already has a hard time attracting qualified applicants, said Lorrane McPherson, executive director of exceptional education.

The Sunnyside Unified School District has 232 teacher aides and of those 79 have taken the equivalency test and 65 have enough college credits to meet the requirement, spokeswoman Monique Soria said.

Faced with losing a large chunk of its teacher aide work force, TUSD is offering $5 study classes to help employees prepare to take one of the standardized tests workers can pass to prove they've met the federal requirement.

Sunnyside is also offering a free study class to help employees prepare.

"I don't think I could have passed the test without those classes," said Raina Robles, a site network technician in TUSD. She works mostly with computers, but also instructs students and had to meet the aide requirements.

"The classes helped me focus on what I needed to study for and to lessen the anxiety of taking the test," Robles said. She passed the ParaPro test with a higher score than she anticipated.

While time and money are barriers that keep some aides from taking college courses, Pima Community College is offering an early childhood education program designed to help working people.

The classes meet in the late afternoon or on weekends and result in a one-year advanced certificate or an associate's degree of applied science that requires 63 college hours, said faculty member BethAnn Johnson.

About 25 percent of the roughly 300 people enrolled in the PCC program work as teacher aides, Johnson said.

States set their own minimum test scores. In Arizona, test takers must get 66 percent of the questions correct on the ParaPro test, for example, in order to pass.

Almost 1,100 people took the ParaPro test between September 2002 and August 2003 and about three-quarters of them passed, Wiebke said.

The thought of taking a test in order to keep her job didn't sit well with teacher aide Adelina Ortiz, an aide at Pueblo Gardens Elementary School.

Ortiz has worked in schools for 18 years. When she graduated from Pueblo High School in 1968, students only had to take general math, so over the years she relied on the teachers she worked with to teach her new skills.

Ortiz took the ParaPro test in January and won't learn her scores until March. It costs $40 to take the test and TUSD employees must pay for it themselves.

Some districts, including Sunnyside, will pay for the first time an aide takes the test.

Making sure aides are qualified is good, of course, but some aides think there should be some credit given for experience.

"I think it's a bummer," Ortiz said. "We've been there and worked with children all this time, worked with the teachers and we know what we're doing."

Ortiz took the TUSD study class and said if she doesn't pass the first time, she'll take the test again. She's close to retirement and doesn't want to have to start over in a new job.

The tests are in English, which is causing some trepidation for people like Ana Castro, an aide at Sunnyside's Los Amigos Elementary School.

"I'm taking the class now so I can get ready for the test," Castro said. "I'm nervous because English is not my first language, but I think I can study and get ready for that."

Los Amigos aide Rosalva Trujillo took the test and passed last summer. She's been an aide in Sunnyside for 17 years and is also taking classes at Pima Community College.

"Everything that's on the test, I've been trained to do," Trujillo said. "That's exactly what the test is all about, the things I already do in school. It wasn't a biggie for me."

* Contact reporter Sarah Garrecht Gassen at 573-4117 or sgassen@azstarnet.com.

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