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Up to half of teacher candidates failing tests

Results could mean colleges failing, too

Thursday, January 17, 2002

By Jane Elizabeth and John M. R. Bull , Post-Gazette Staff Writers

Between one-third and one-half of Pennsylvania's prospective math and science teachers failed certification tests last year, causing education officials to question whether the state's colleges and universities are doing a good enough job educating their students.

The scores were included in a report released yesterday at the Pennsylvania State Board of Education meeting in Harrisburg. The report highlighted the math and science scores partly because a relatively large number of prospective teachers -- more than 12,000 -- took the tests in math, biology and chemistry.

The report noted that the chemistry score was "well below the national median," and that "may be an indicator that our preparing institutions are presenting programs not fully consistent with the tests."

Results on other tests reported by the Bureau of Teacher Certification and Preparation also raised some eyebrows.

About a third of applicants flunked the special education certification tests.

Nearly 50 percent of prospective Spanish teachers failed their test, and the average Pennsylvania score was 17 points below the average national score.

More than a third of applicants failed both the "pre-professional skills test" in writing and the social studies test.

Bureau Director Frank J. Meehan said he "would hold Spanish up as a problem in Pennsylvania," based on the high failure rate and the gap with the national average.

The reasons for the low scores are unclear, he said, but it could be that the tests need to be rewritten, students aren't learning the right Spanish dialects or the students simply aren't up to the challenge.

On the "content knowledge" portion of the math test, where calculators are allowed, about 43 percent of the teachers failed. Calculators also were allowed on another math section, in the "pre-professional skills test," or PPST, and about a third of the teachers failed it.

Meehan said that because the state has a shortage of math teachers, it may make the test easier to get a higher passing rate.

The tests were taken by soon-to-graduate college students and recent graduates during the 2000-01 fiscal year. The tests can be taken repeatedly until the student passes. The scores released yesterday reflected the grades on the students' first attempts.

Prospective teachers are supposed to be certified to teach in the state's public schools and private schools that adopt that standard.

While the performance was better on some tests -- for instance, the passing rate was 96.7 percent on the early childhood education test -- some university officials said the scores should provoke neither worry nor admiration.

"It doesn't mean anything," said John W. Butzow, dean of education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Butzow is president of the Pennsylvania Association of Colleges and Teacher Educators, which represents colleges and universities that have teacher education programs. That group has advocated changes in the way Pennsylvania tests its teachers for certification.

Comparing Pennsylvania test-takers to those in the rest of the nation, Butzow said, is "apples and oranges."

"Not every state uses the same exam, not every state tests the same information, and every state has a different cut score" -- the line between passing and failing, Butzow said. That makes the national passing rate "fiction," he said.

The association also has argued with the questions that are included on the tests, the multiple choice model of testing, and the way the cut score is determined.

"We don't know exactly what the cut score means," said Butzow, an 18-year veteran at IUP, which graduates about 600 prospective teachers per year.

The board also was told yesterday that 3,940 "emergency" teaching permits were issued last year to teachers who were hired without completing all of their required education and testing. Emergency certificates include teachers who may be certified in one subject but are then authorized to teach another one to meet a district's need.

The number of emergency certifications "indicates to us that a classroom is assigned to an individual not fully certified for that position," the report said. More than half of those permits were given to teachers in the Philadelphia school district, which recently was taken over by the state because of its poor academic performance.

And more than 6,800 "emergency" certificates were issued to substitute teachers who didn't meet the usual requirements. That figure was 4,641 in 1999.

The severe shortage of substitute teachers has led to a crush of paperwork because of the heavy requests for emergency certificates, the report said. To help ease that workload, the state Education Department this year set up a Web site where emergency permits can be easily and quickly renewed.

The pilot project, which includes the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit, will be expanded next year, state officials said.

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