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The 'Quick Fix' of Certification Exams

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Are standardized exams that certify teachers going to provide the nation's schools with the high-quality teachers that parents want for their children? This past fall, the high failure rate of students enrolled in teacher education programs at some campuses of City University of New York was front-page news in local papers. But the news reports contained nothing about the test itself. No one except previous test-takers knows what the test contains. The private company that creates, administers, and grades the exam, National Evaluations Systems Inc., has refused to release old versions of the test, so the public is ignorant about what knowledge and skills it measures.

To find out why so many prospective teachers are failing this test, I registered for both of its portions required for certification in New York state. I took the tests on Oct. 18, along with 700 other people, many of them minority adults retaking the test because of past failure. Their anxiety was palpable, and the long wait we had to endure for two crowded elevators to take us to our 5th-floor testing site only increased the apprehension.

My interest in the test is more than theoretical. I teach education at the College of Staten Island, part of City University of New York. Though CSI students perform as well on average as other test-takers in the state, I wanted to know what was being implicitly demanded of teacher education programs. Without actually signing up for the test and taking it along with the students we prepare, faculty members have no way of knowing what is on the test, how to prepare our students for it, or whether it is a valid measure of their skills and knowledge.

I also was concerned with how well the test assessed the high-level thinking skills that the New York board of regents and the state department of education have called for all teachers and their public school students to master. In contrast to most education faculty in the nation's universities, I spent many years as a classroom teacher, most of them in New York City schools considered very tough places to teach, so I was also concerned about whether this test measures the considerable skills and knowledge New York City teachers actually need. My research and publications focus on urban teacher preparation, so I feel especially qualified to judge whether the test will improve the quality of teaching in urban schools.

Sadly, the four-hour segment of the exam that purports to measure knowledge of the liberal arts and sciences--LAST--consists of SAT-like questions about reading selections. The "literature" section contained short excerpts or poems, followed by queries with intentionally tricky wording about the main idea, the theme, or the author's intent. The science and math sections asked for answers to the kinds of problems most students are introduced to in junior high school. Only the writing sample, a persuasive essay on a topic of educational interest, measured any ability worth assessing.

The second test required for state certification--ATS-w--is another four-hour exam containing multiple-choice questions and an essay. It is supposed to assess knowledge of sound instructional practice. But what the test measures best, I found, is familiarity with the latest educational jargon. In the version for secondary teachers, brief descriptions of situations a teacher might encounter were followed by questions and possible answers. In at least one-third of these vignettes, I thought that two answers were equally valid and that a reflective teacher who knew teaching and learning are contextual might well mark an answer considered incorrect. The only reason I could identify the answer the test-maker would designate as the right one is that I follow what's currently touted in textbooks.

Yet, the best educational research demonstrates that the kinds of formulaic responses this certification exam calls for are absent in classrooms of teachers who are analytical about their teaching and knowledgeable about all of their options in curriculum and instruction.

Probably in deference to criticisms that have been made about cultural bias in standardized tests, the exam included excerpts of works written by African and Asian writers and reading selections about the Third World. But as is true in all standardized tests like the LAST, the bias is embedded in the test design. The LAST does not measure skills or knowledge that teacher candidates normally acquire in college or education courses. Rather, what it assesses most accurately is the student's social-class background.

I was encouraged to see so many minority adults taking the test at my site because minority teachers are a valuable but scarce resource. I know from my teaching experience and research that urban schools desperately need teachers who come from the poor, minority communities public schools have failed to serve well. Many times, as a city teacher, I asked African-American and Hispanic colleagues for advice in thinking through a problem I was having with a student. I wanted an opinion from someone who had shared the life experiences of my students and their parents.

Do citizens really want schools of education to devote so much attention to helping prospective teachers pass a test that is utterly irrelevant to what should occur in public school classrooms?

Yet minority candidates are the test-takers who fail standardized exams such as the LAST in disproportionate numbers. Even more disturbing is the fact that New York City is decertifying and firing dozens of teachers who have been teaching for years, earning satisfactory reviews for their performance in the classroom, because these teachers cannot pass the certification exam.

Education programs at several CUNY campuses are being battered and humiliated by politicians because of students' poor showing on the LAST and ATS-w. After taking the certification exam, I can reassure CUNY faculty members that they can increase their passing rates if they turn their education courses into Stanley Kaplan-like drill sessions. But do citizens really want their schools of education to devote so much attention to helping prospective teachers pass a test that is utterly irrelevant to what should occur in public school classrooms?

How can we justify the expenditure of time and money on test preparation of this sort when our teachers need so much knowledge about the content they must teach, as well as instructional methods that will help them reach all students?

If we want literate, thoughtful, analytical teachers, we must make significant changes in the way we recruit, prepare, and select teachers. The "quick fix" of this certification exam deludes parents and citizens into thinking that something substantive is being done to improve the quality of teaching and schooling, when in reality all that's accomplished is barring some of the people we most need as teachers.

Lois Weiner, a former classroom teacher in New York City, is a visiting professor of education at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

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