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A question of quality: Are teacher entrance tests tough enough?

Monday, February 03, 2003

By Eleanor Chute, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Second in a series

Abby Ivory, a junior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, loves working with children and decided in high school to pursue a career in special education.

But she hasn't been able to pass all of the tests required to get a teaching certificate, or even enter IUP's education program.

More in today's report

Online chart:
Test yourself

Online chart:
Now and then

State raising standards for 'on the job' training

Controversial tests' future uncertain

Join a Town Meeting on teacher quality

About the series

Day One: Examining the roots of uneven instruction quality in our schools


Ivory, who was an honors student at Central Cambria High School and has a 3.2 GPA at IUP, passed the reading test the first time she took it. But it took three tries before she passed the math test. And she still is trying to pass the writing test.

Under IUP's rules, that means Ivory can't continue as an education major. Now she plans to work with children in a hospital setting.

In Pennsylvania, the teacher tests -- called Praxis exams-- are supposed to be "make-or-break." Flunk just one of them, and you can't become a certified teacher.

But while IUP restricts the number of times students can take the tests, the state and some other education schools permit unlimited attempts.

One student flunked 21 times before getting a passing score, said Frank Meehan, teacher certification director for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

And even students who don't pass can teach with a so-called "emergency certificate" for up to two years.

These loopholes may dilute the effectiveness of a test that is designed to be a basic gateway to the teaching profession.

The standardized, written tests are not supposed to be particularly difficult. In fact, they simply test "minimum competency," said Meehan.

"It's meant to be the floor; not the ceiling," Meehan said.

A basic requirement

Added Mari Pearlman, vice president of Educational Testing Service, which developed the Praxis tests:

"If you can't pass this test at a standard set by states for minimal levels to be licensed, you really need to reflect on whether or not you have enough content knowledge to teach children effectively."

And Rosalie Dibert, who taught special education in city schools for 38 years, said prospective teachers need to know how to take tests.

"We ask kids to take tests non-stop," Dibert said. Teachers need to learn test-taking strategies for themselves, she said, so they can later help students do their best on standardized exams.

Nearly all states have testing requirements for teacher candidates.

In Pennsylvania, teacher candidates must pass Praxis tests in reading, math and writing as well as in their content area to become certified. They also have had to pass a written Praxis test on teaching techniques. But beginning in the fall of this year, the state will accept evidence from their student teaching instead.

While some say the tests ensure at least a minimum level of knowledge, others say they carry too much weight because they exclude potentially good teachers who may not test well.

"There is probably some baseline knowledge everyone should know," said John Johnson, who is in charge of the teacher education program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. "On the other hand, from our experience, we believe there are a number of potentially fine teachers being excluded on a single indicator."

Passing the Praxis doesn't guarantee high-quality teachers in every classroom, said University of Kansas psychology professor John Poggio. "There are people who will pass these tests and will make horrible teachers," he said.

And minorities and those who speak English as a second language have difficulty with the tests, said Marilyn Cochran-Smith, a Boston College education professor who is co-chair of the American Educational Research Association's Consensus Panel on Teacher Education.

"There is some evidence teacher tests may be discouraging more minority members from entering teaching in the first place," she said.

Testing 'wrong stuff'?

Ivory said there were several reasons she struggled with the math test.

Ivory, who had a 940 SAT score and took trigonometry in high school, said she was thrown off by a lot of things: the math test format, the time limit, the rule against using a calculator, the gap between when she learned the material and took the test, and perhaps some test anxiety.

"I just think that the tests are important, but you're tested on the wrong stuff. You should be tested on your skills, how you work with children and how you manage and handle them," she said.

Lori Tweedy, an IUP junior with a 3.6 GPA and a 970 SAT score, also has struggled with the Praxis.

Tweedy believes she would be a good teacher, but because of a learning disability that slows her reading, she has failed the Praxis writing test three times by as little as one point. To try to reach her dream, she plans to transfer to Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania so she can keep taking the test.

"I don't want to be anything else," she said. "I want to be a teacher."

Last year, an average of 84 percent of Pennsylvania students who had completed teacher education programs had passed all of the required Praxis exams by October.

That percentage is likely to go up because some schools are planning to require students to pass the Praxis before they begin student teaching. Students who can't pass the tests would have to switch majors to graduate.

For now, there is a wide range of pass rates on the Praxis tests among Pennsylvania colleges and universities, ranging from 100 percent at several colleges to just 25 percent at Lincoln University near Philadelphia.

Pearlman said it isn't necessarily fair to judge the quality of an education program based on how many students pass the Praxis, because some schools have made it their mission to train more challenging students with diverse backgrounds.

And Cochran-Smith said that while she favors high standards and accountability for education schools, "I think teacher tests are a poor measure if they are the only measure."

Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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