As school leaders struggle to find enough highly qualified educators to staff the nation’s classrooms, a growing number of districts are turning to the web in hopes of corralling new employees. Now, one North Carolina school system is among the first in the country to adopt a practice that already is catching on in the corporate world: using online exams to screen and assess potential candidates.

As of June 1, the Wake County Public School System–the second largest school district in North Carolina, serving more than 104,000 students–now requires anyone who applies for a job as a teacher or school principal to take a multiple-choice test online. The exam asks a series of questions intended to highlight certain personality traits and assess how candidates might respond in different situations.

Back in February, Wake County tapped Pennsylvania-based Kenexa, a provider of human-resources services and web-based hiring solutions to Fortune 500 companies, to lend a touch of corporate efficiency to the school system’s slow-moving hiring process.

The district, which has 127 schools and employs more than 7,500 teachers, approached Kenexa with two goals in mind: (1) implementing an automated system that would help hiring managers sift through the tremendous influx of paper-based and electronic resumes received from potential job applicants, and (2) creating a selection process that would enable administrators to identify the brightest, best-prepared, and most talented prospects in the application pool.

“With the ongoing shortage of teachers, it has become difficult to both hire and retain the right teachers,” said Toni Patterson, assistant superintendent for the district.

The challenge isn’t unique to Wake County. Nationwide, school systems are reeling from a worsening teacher crunch. Owing to a current crop of aging educators and a continually shrinking pool of college graduates interested in entering the teaching ranks, experts have estimated a need for more than 2 million additional teachers to staff the nation’s classrooms over the next 10 years–a problem that has recently been compounded by stricter high-quality teacher provisions ushered in under the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law requires all states to retain certified teachers in every core subject area, from math and science to language arts, by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

But it isn’t just about recruiting good teachers. The real challenge these days lies in matching the right applicant with the right job, Patterson said. The more comfortable an employee is in his or her position, the more likely he or she is to stick around.

To improve system-wide retention, Wake County will administer two customized online assessments–one for prospective teachers and another for administrators–which should take job-seekers about 20 minutes to complete through a service hosted for the district on Kenexa’s web site.

In formulating the assessments, Kenexa human-resource consultants interviewed top district administrators to get a sense for what skills and personalities have elicited the most success among district employees.

“By matching the right applicant to the right job, we’ll increase the probability of [employee] success and increase retention in the school district,” Patterson said.

The list of questions used as examples during the test period included asking applicants how they would react if they suspected a student of being intoxicated at a school function, or what they would do if a school board member asked them to discuss the educational progress of someone else’s child. Applicants also were asked to describe what they enjoyed about working with children and to give their opinions on equal education.

In peak season, Wake County receives as many as 150 applications a day from job-seekers looking to join what has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing school systems.

“We spend a lot of time just wading through papers,” Patterson said. “The volume of work is significant.”

By bringing the system online, she hopes the district will have a better shot at acting quickly to nab top talent.

“This will allow us to recognize [highly qualified teachers] and follow up with them immediately,” she said.

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Wake County Public School System