Education

New Organization Aims to Develop Tests for Teachers

By Julie Blair — October 17, 2001 7 min read
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The established world of teacher licensing and certification is being challenged by a newcomer to the field that promises to streamline the complex system while making it more meaningful.

The American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence unveiled plans last month to set up a system of credentialing for both beginning and veteran educators that will gauge their knowledge of subject matter and pedagogy through standardized tests.

Its founders say their aims are to recruit new talent by creating a portable credential, reward teachers of proven skill, and provide administrators with better tools to assess those they hire.

But some educators question whether such an effort will be a good measure of quality, or a necessary one in a marketplace already offering several options.

The initiative, supported by a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, will complement rather than supersede mandatory state-licensure requirements, said Michael B. Poliakoff, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based panel set up last year by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, which is leading the new testing effort.

The Education Leaders Council is also a partner in the effort. The council, based in Washington, includes nine chief state school officers who preside over education systems that together enroll one-third of the nation’s K-12 students. The states are Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia.

“This project will bridge the gulf between certification and qualification,” Mr. Poliakoff said in an interview. “This test will have the capacity to distinguish between good, mediocre, and outstanding educators.”

Many education leaders were caught off guard by the announcement of the two-year grant for the new certification board from the U.S. secretary of education’s discretionary fund. “I am surprised and shocked to see the federal government making an award like this on a noncompetitive basis,” said Arthur E. Wise, the president of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. “Usually, the federal government steps into an arena when others have not. There is already a vibrant market out there.”

Officials with the Department of Education did not return phone calls on the matter. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a press release on the department’s Web site that “we hope this initiative will encourage professionals from other careers and bright liberal-arts students to enter the teaching field and stay there.”

Unmet Need?

The tests would enter a market already supplied with well-known measures of teaching.

Two companies, the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., and National Evaluation Systems Inc., located in Amherst, Mass., have developed extensive assessments for beginning teachers and supply them to states for use in initial licensing.

In addition, the Arlington, Va.-based National Board for Professional Teaching Standards has spent millions of dollars since 1987 designing, implementing, and advertising a voluntary national-certification system to re-cognize outstanding teachers. Some of its funding comes from the federal government.

Typically, prospective teachers are required by state law to pass exams in basic skills and pedagogy before earning licenses to teach, a cost to each prospective educator of about $20 to $400. Undergoing the national board’s assessments costs $2,300, a fee often paid by states and districts. In 44 states, teachers who achieve national certification are provided with bonuses.

The new American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence contends it will fulfill a great need, yet unmet, for tests that are significantly more rigorous. In addition, administrators would be provided with detailed information about test-takers’ knowledge and abilities said Mr. Poliakoff, the former deputy secretary of secondary and higher education in Pennsylvania.

Over the next two years, he said, the board will develop college-level standardized tests that focus on content knowledge and classroom skills, such as maintaining discipline. The first assessment in the series will likely be a traditional paper-and-pencil exam, while later tests will be taken on computers.

Teachers applying for “master” status also will be judged on the basis of their students’ achievement, documented over a period of time, Mr. Poliakoff said.

The cost of both tests will run “several hundred dollars,” he said. It was not clear last week when the first tests would be administered. A computerized tutorial program for the pedagogy assessment will be drawn up to accommodate those who did not attend teacher education programs, Mr. Poliakoff said, and might also be used for professional development for more advanced professionals.

Both initial and advanced certificates will be awarded in elementary education, English, and mathematics, but the life of the certificate has yet to be decided, he said.

No Incentives

Changing a state’s licensure system to incorporate the new tests would require consensus among the state boards of education and state teaching-standards boards that now regulate entry into the field, said Roy Einreinhofer, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, in Mashpee, Mass.

State lawmakers and administrators are likely to balk at the new tests because they are direct competitors to states, Mr. Einreinhofer said.

Many states already have their own alternative-licensure programs in an attempt to make entry into the profession easier for people without traditional teacher training.

Teachers would have little incentive, then, to pay for an additional, unmandated credential, Mr. Einreinhofer argued.

But Mr. Poliakoff said he was hopeful that the new certification board would gain a footing among the states, particularly as a tool for licensing prospective teachers who haven’t attended education schools. One eventual goal is to persuade federal and state lawmakers to provide bonsues to educators who earn the certification, just as many states have done for the NBPTS credentials, he said.

Educators who take the new board’s tests will be categorized according to their competency levels—information intended to be released to employers, Mr. Poliakoff said. In contrast, most current licensure tests are given on a pass-fail basis. Although the tests would be voluntary, Mr. Poliakoff said he was confident that teachers would want to take them in order to show their prowess on a more difficult assessment.

Single Standard

In addition, passing the new national tests would be a great advantage to teachers who want to move during their careers, he argued. Administrators who are looking for a single standard by which to judge employees could use the results of the new system.

The effort has clearly piqued the interest—and skepticism— of more established education groups.

Officials of some organizations say they are doubtful of the ability of standardized tests alone to provide a comprehensive assessment of teachers’ knowledge and skills, as the new certification board says such tests can.

“Teachers should know their disciplines, but it is obvious that their body of teaching and learning is of equal importance,” said Gary Galluzzo, the executive vice president of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. “I don’t see that [emphasis] so far in what they are proposing.”

But Mr. Galluzzo added that he was withholding judgment of the effort until he could see the tests.

“We’d like to see what they learn,” he said. “If this reveals something new, we’d like to see what it is so that it will make us stronger.”

The certification by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence should be used as only one of many criteria when hiring new teachers or assessing veterans, added Martin A. Kozloff, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

“Most certification instruments I’m aware of are pretty soft,” he said. “This gets to the heart of sound instruction. School administrators ought to have alternative measures.”

One benefit of the system may be the portability of the credential, said Penelope M. Earley, the senior director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, a Washington-based membership organization representing more than 735 teacher-preparation programs. It is helpful to have a common standard such as the one provided by the NBPTS, she said.

“This will be big business if school districts are willing to reward teachers who have this advanced credential,” Ms. Earley said.

But first, the new certification board must convince skeptics that its standardized tests are valid, reliable, and meaningful, she said.

To date, teacher assessments have not aimed to classify educators beyond “passing” and “failing” because of the inability of standardized tests to depict the worth of teachers, said Mr. Wise of NCATE.

“It is no accident that we don’t have states identifying first- and second-string doctors, lawyers, and architects,” Mr. Wise said. “It has never happened ... for a variety of reasons, including the fundamental limitations of standardized tests.”

Moreover, many districts are facing teacher shortages and would be reluctant to add requirements to the system for fear of discouraging applicants, Mr. Einreinhofer pointed out.

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