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Kathleen A. Madigan

Testing the teachers

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Kathleen A. Madigan
April 23, 2008

MASSACHUSETTS Senate minority leader Richard Tisei recently observed, "We always seem to be chipping away at the Education Reform Act."

Sadly, he's right.

First, the Commonwealth ditched the accountability piece of reform when it abolished the Office of Educational Quality and Accountability. Then it reversed more than 170 years of tradition by eliminating the independence of the state Board of Education.

Teacher testing is the latest reform to come under fire. A bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate and seems to have the Patrick administration's backing would allow some aspiring teachers in Massachusetts to be licensed even if they fail a licensure test three times. The administration says it's trying to develop alternate criteria for those whose scores are just shy of passing.

Requiring prospective teachers to pass basic skills and content knowledge tests has been an important component of reform. Massachusetts students benefit from new teachers who have a strong academic foundation. Research shows a strong correlation between teachers' subject matter knowledge and student achievement. The Commonwealth's licensure tests, which are a national model, are one reason why Massachusetts student scores on reading, writing, and math tests are among the best in the country.

Proponents of alternative criteria for borderline candidates make two basic arguments. First, they claim that requiring all prospective teachers to pass the licensure tests exacerbates a purported teacher shortage. Next they assert that the requirement is not fair to talented teachers who don't test well. Closer scrutiny reveals that both arguments are specious.

In general, Massachusetts doesn't have a teacher shortage. In fact, we enjoy an oversupply of elementary and early childhood teachers. The only shortages are in special education and secondary-level math, science, and foreign languages. Addressing this problem by making waivers possible for prospective teachers at all levels is an overbroad prescription for a limited malady.

Even stranger is the claim that talented teachers are being denied jobs simply because they don't test well. As with the MCAS graduation requirement, context is required to understand this issue. Most people are surprised to learn that passing MCAS requires only an eighth-grade proficiency level. Most Massachusetts teacher tests require potential teachers to demonstrate high school-level skills.

As for talented teachers being denied jobs, there is no way to know. The majority of education schools require their students to pass licensure tests prior to beginning their student teaching, so (thankfully) almost no one is teaching who hasn't passed the test.

Prospective teachers who fail the licensure tests consistently come from the same few Massachusetts teacher-training programs. Just an 80 percent pass rate is required to maintain state approval. The only way consumers can see which programs aren't up to par is to look at the Title II reports the Commonwealth submits annually to the US Department of Education. Policy makers would be better served to focus on how to improve the weak teacher preparation programs than to develop alternative criteria for prospective teachers who fail.

The facts lead you to wonder just who the proposed waiver is designed to protect.

Putting teachers into the classroom who haven't met the academic standards the exam measures does the teacher no favors; it doesn't help the reputation of the vast majority of teacher preparation programs whose students consistently pass the test; and principals would have no way of knowing if a teacher has the content knowledge needed to raise student achievement.

In trying to be responsive to the needs of prospective teachers, political leaders have forgotten the purpose of teacher licensure exams - to protect students.

This time, there might be an external check on efforts to dismantle successful reforms. Teacher-test waivers and alternative assessment may be a violation of the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires teacher testing to ensure that "highly qualified" teachers are in classrooms.

Students can't be expected to live up to high academic standards if the same is not expected of their teachers.

Unfortunately, teacher testing is only the latest front on which the state is in full-blown retreat from the reforms that have made it the unquestioned national leader in public education.

Kathleen A. Madigan, founder and former president of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, is a member of Pioneer Institute's Center for School Reform Advisory Board.

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