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Charles Glenn

High standards for teachers

TEACHER QUALITY has more impact on student performance than any other factor, according to a variety of research, which is why the way we prepare teachers is fundamental to education reform.

The framers of the landmark 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act mandated testing for all prospective Bay State teachers. Since 1998, all teacher candidates have been required to pass the two-part Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure - the Communication and Literacy Skills exam plus the subject matter exam for the field of their license - before they can become certified to teach in a Massachusetts public school.

In addition to the Communication and Literacy test, the Commonwealth currently provides 37 subject matter tests, most of which were made more rigorous after 2001. They range from elementary education, history, and math to music, dance, and theater.

Controversy flared recently when the Massachusetts Department of Education asked its Educational Personnel Advisory Council to review why many minority teacher candidates fail the state's licensure exams. On the Communication and Literacy Skills test administered during the 2005-06 school year, 77 percent of white teacher candidates passed the Communication section, compared with just 48 percent of Hispanic and 46 percent of African-American test-takers. On the Literacy section, 86 percent of white test takers passed, compared with 62 percent of African-American and 61 percent of Hispanic candidates.

The figures are even more troubling because, in terms of difficulty, teacher tests tend to be at the high school level. In a 1999 journal article published by The Education Trust, Ruth Mitchell and Patte Barth examined a number of teacher tests, and judged the difficulty to be at the "8th- to 10th- (sometimes 7th-) grade level."

It should come as no surprise that most Massachusetts schools of education use the reading and writing skills tests as the basis for admission to their licensure programs, whether in students' freshman, sophomore, or junior years. Clearly, performance on these tests reflects college admission standards, and those who fail may need targeted help from their colleges.

The teacher test results reveal much about higher-education institutions' success at preparing their students to become future teachers, and also about the quality of secondary-school preparation for incoming freshmen aspiring to be teachers. In short, they offer another important piece of data to help K-12 public education and higher-education institutions evaluate themselves.

Given the level of most teacher tests in this country, the state should not scrap higher expectations and teacher testing on the grounds that they discriminate against minorities, as MTEL critics may suggest. Instead, an analysis of pass/fail rates should be used to help raise expectations and remedy disparities in pass rates among various demographic subgroups.

The Department of Education carefully scrutinizes all state-authorized tests - including the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure - for cultural and other types of bias before they are administered. State bias committees review test objectives, test items, language, and content to ensure that they are valid, impartial, and bias-free. National Evaluation Systems Inc., the company that designs and administers the Massachusetts tests, also does teacher testing work in California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Texas.

According to the Department of Education, "Guarding against bias in the MTEL materials is focused on excluding" subject content that "might disadvantage candidates," or discourage any "perspectives that reflect the diversity of the Massachusetts population." Nobody should doubt that both the state and the test company take their antibias work seriously.

Students entering higher education are only as good as the preparation they receive in high school. Instead of unproductive debates over alleged bias in teacher testing, we should focus on increasing academic expectations across the entire educational system. It would be a gross disservice for our public school children to be taught by teachers who do not meet the standards set by our current teacher tests.

Charles Glenn is dean ad interim at Boston University School of Education and a member of the Pioneer Institute's Center for School Reform Advisory Board.

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