Rhea Butler, a physical education teacher in Alexandria, was not particularly nervous the first time she took the Praxis I exam, a basic skills test all Virginia teachers must pass within three years of starting work to keep their jobs.
But when she failed the math section by just one point, she was surprised -- and frightened. With a score of 177 out of 190, she would have passed in any of the other 28 states and the District where the test is required. Each state chooses its own passing grade, and for years the commonwealth's has been the highest in the nation.
With her job on the line, Butler raced to retake the test as often as she needed to before time ran out. She took it in writing and on a computer monitor. She got tutoring from fellow teachers. As her anxiety grew, her scores dropped point by point.
Butler finally passed on her sixth attempt over the summer, but not before getting a packet in the mail from the Alexandria school system alerting her that time was up and she would have to get a new job. On the outside were the words "Termination Package" in bold letters.
"I felt terrible. I was devastated," she said. With her passing scores in hand, she went back to work at Francis C. Hammond Middle School this month.
All Virginia teachers must pass the Praxis I, a skills test divided into math, reading and writing sections. Some take it while they are still in high school or college or before they start teaching. Others teach using a provisional license, an option for as long as three years. Teachers must also pass a higher level test, the Praxis II, in the subject area they teach.
Virginia's high passing grade on the Praxis I has led to complaints for years that good teachers are being pushed from the classroom, at the same time that educators fret about a shortage of quality teachers.
"We've lost some good people," said Randy Richards, director of recruitment and retention for Alexandria's schools. "There's something to be said about having high standards, but in this day and age, it's hard to find teachers."
The issue is problematic because officials fear losing a reputation for setting high standards for teachers. Virginia's Board of Education is considering a proposal to drop the score required to pass the math test that gave Butler so much trouble, from 178 to 175. The new score would still be at the top of the scale in the country, matching Indiana, Oregon and Vermont.
At the same time, a board advisory committee recommended that the state hold the passing score on the reading section at 178 and raise it a point in writing to 177. The board was scheduled to discuss the topic at its meeting last week but decided to allow members to study it in more detail. Debate is set to begin next month.
For Butler, the most frustrating part of her predicament was that she could pass the reading and writing sections -- which she said bore some relation to her physical education teaching. Only the math, which she said has little to do with her daily work, tripped her up. Teacher groups have echoed that complaint, wondering whether the Praxis test is a good indicator of teaching ability.
"There's this whole mentality that we need rigorous, high standards. But the standards of someone's practice in the classroom are not necessarily shown by test scores," said Rick Baumgartner, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents teachers. "We've lost some good people."
Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said there have been no studies done that measure whether the state's scores for cutting teachers affect recruitment and retention.
Several local officials responsible for hiring and retaining teachers said they support requiring a basic skills test, though they also are glad to see state officials reevaluate the passing scores.
"We want to go on record as saying we support high standards for teachers," said Darlene Faltz, recruiting supervisor for Prince William County schools. But, she said, "we look at the overall quality of the teachers, which includes the Praxis scores, but there are certainly other factors we consider."
In Arlington County, Betty Hobbs, the school system's assistant superintendent for personnel services, said she favors an appeals process so that teachers who have the backing of their principals could stay in the classroom, even if they struggle with the test.
"I would really like to see a process in which we can look at situations where a teacher misses the cut score by one point. Is there any way we can have a process where we look at the teacher individually?" she asked.
Local officials said they have tried to take an active role in helping teachers pass the exams. For example, they urge teachers prone to procrastinating to take the test during their first year in the classroom, rather than in the third, when time is running out.
Some counties start even earlier. Mac Corwine, president of the Loudoun Education Association, said the county's teacher cadet program, which encourages high school students to become teachers, gets interested teenagers to take Praxis I before graduating from high school.
Pyle noted that besides the proposal now under consideration, the board has injected some flexibility into the system over the years -- including a provision that lets teachers substitute SAT or ACT scores for the Praxis I exam.
But Richards said the move, while considerate, has helped few of the Alexandria teachers who have trouble with the exam. "If you're not great at one," he said, "you're not likely to pass the other."