Law forces aides to prove skills
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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