Reports Blast Teacher Tests
A new report by the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences warns that licensing tests should never be used as the sole measure of prospective teachers or their college preparation programs. “Testing Teaching Candidates: The Role of Licensure Tests in Improving Teacher Quality” concludes that raising cut-off scores on the exams may reduce racial diversity in the teaching profession without improving quality.
An interim version of the National Academy report had bluntly stated that current licensing exams generally do not “predict who will become effective teachers” (see Examiner, Spring 2000). Nevertheless, the final report notes that 42 states now rely on standardized tests in the teacher licensing process. In addition, amendments to the U.S. Higher Education Act adopted in 1998 could make federal funding for teacher preparation programs contingent on their students’ test performance.
NRC panel members were particularly critical of National Evaluation Systems (NES) for refusing “to provide the committee with enough information about its exams to evaluate them.” NES designs and administers “custom-made” exams for 10 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, and Texas. An estimated 377,000 teacher aspirants take NES exams each year, compared to about 500,000 who take the Praxis series of licensing tests made by the Educational Testing Service and used in about 30 other states.
Expanding on the NRC research, a major news wire story focussed on the failure of NES to make public key documents and data about its tests. The Associated Press quoted several leading education experts who charged that NES violated the measurement profession’s Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing. Typical of the comments was University of Nebraska Professor Barbara Plake, who said, “We’re making decisions about who’s qualified to be licensed based on a product we don’t know the accuracy of.”
NES’ tests also have faced legal problems. Its Alabama teacher-licensing exam was dropped by the state after a lawsuit revealed that the firm fabricated evidence for claims of the test’s accuracy (see Examiner, Spring 1987). Another NES-made exam is currently being challenged in a New York federal court lawsuit, charging that state’s test is racially biased and not job related (see Examiner, Summer 1996).
NES’ Massachusetts Exam
Critics of teacher testing in general and NES in specific can find further ammunition in an article in the June 2001 of the Phi Delta Kappan: “What Did the Massachusetts Teacher Tests Say About American Education?” by Salem State College Associate Professor R. Clarke Fowler.
The article summarizes multiple strands of research to demonstrate that the controversial exams (see Examiner, Summer 1999, Winter 1998-99) did not increase accountability or lead to better quality classroom educators. Fowler contrasts public officials’ statements about the exams (e.g. “a test that a bright 10th-grader could pass without difficulty,” according to the former head of the state’s board of education) with data from contract documents and independent studies demonstrating the test assesses at a much higher proficiency level. He also explains how bizarre items on the exam, such as an exercise in which candidates take dictation from an archaic 18th century essay, can produce results such as flunking a Fulbright Scholar who held a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Despite the rebukes and the legal problems its tests have faced, NES is rapidly expanding. The company recently broke ground for a new corporate headquarters that will be more than a third bigger than its current facility. Apparently, politicians and state-government bureaucrats remain unconcerned about the quality of the tests they mandate, so long as they can continue to appear to be “tough on teachers.”
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