Teacher Tests: Research vs. Politics

Teacher & Employment Testing

The teacher licensing exams administered to aspiring classroom educators in 41 states do not “predict who will become effective teachers,” according to an interim report from the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council. Tests and Teaching Quality also concludes, “There is currently little evidence available about the extent to which widely used teacher licensure tests distinguish between candidates who are minimally competent to teach and those who are not.”


The 17-member committee of educators and assessment experts did note that “[l]icensure tests are designed to provide useful information about the extent to which prospective teachers possess the literacy and mathematics skill and/or the subject-matter and pedagogical knowledge that states consider necessary for beginning teachers.” But they also found:


* The exams “assess only some of the characteristics that are deemed to be important for effective practice;”
* Comparisons of passing rates between states is not useful for public policy purposes because of different testing rules;
* Pass/fail cut-off scores, other requirements, and the tests themselves help result in large differences in licensing rates among racial/ethnic groups, thus posing problems for schools that seek to hire a diverse teaching force.


Notwithstanding the expert critique from the National Academy of Sciences released just weeks earlier, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has issued a report embracing not just one, but two, “rigorous national tests for prospective teachers.” The AFT called for students to pass mandatory exams to enter teacher education programs in college as well as a new licensure test which, presumably, would replace the Educational Testing Service’s PRAXIS series and state-specific exams now made by National Evaluation Systems.


The AFT proposal extends the union’s historic position of support for entry-level teacher tests coupled with militant opposition to exams of any form for in-service classroom educators. The other major U.S. teacher organization, the National Education Association (NEA), has a similar stance. Some observers explain the apparent inconsistency as a conscious attempt to forestall regular testing of union members by appearing “reasonable.”


Whatever the motivation, the unions’ strategy is not having the desired effect, at least in the state of Massachusetts. The local AFT and NEA affiliates did acquiesce to entry-level teacher testing as part of the same “education reform” package that created the controversial MCAS exams (see related story). And they have largely stayed on the sidelines as evidence of the new Massachusetts Educator Certification Tests’ bias, irrelevance and other flaws became well known (see Examiner, Summer 1999 and Winter 1998-1999). But these compromises did not at all impede state Board of Education adoption of a plan advanced by Governor Paul Cellucci to test all math teachers in schools with low MCAS scores. As a result, many long-term educators are outraged, and the unions have announced that they will try to stop the in-service math teachers’ test in court. Similar attempts to expand entry-level testing into periodic exams for experienced educators is likely to unfold in other states with governors who see the issue as a political asset.


Not surprisingly, both likely major party presidential nominees have also jumped on the teacher testing bandwagon, just as they have embraced high-stakes exams for grades K-12. Assessment reformers should use campaign appearances around the nation as opportunities to confront Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George Bush about the lack of evidence supporting their positions. Long-time testing critic and Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader may also raise the issue in public debates. Nader is coauthor of The Reign of ETS: The Corporation that Makes Up Minds, a classic text now only available from FairTest (see order form).

  • Tests and Teaching Quality: Interim Report is available online at www.nap.edu or may be ordered from National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave. N.W., Washington DC 20418; $16.50.