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What About a Bar Exam for Aspiring Teachers?

By Walt Gardner — October 27, 2017 1 min read

The need for highly qualified teachers has led some reformers to demand what amounts to a bar exam. At first glance, the proposal has merit, but I doubt it will do much - if anything - to solve the problem. I base my view on the situation in California, where the state’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of keeping the bar’s cut score of 144 intact (“California Bar Exam to Remain One of Nation’s Most Difficult, Court Rules” (The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 20).

Let’s assume for a second that a score on a standardized written test has predictive value. Then the problem will be what the passing score should be. If the past is any indication, black and Hispanic test takers will disproportionately fail to make the grade. That will then lead to a disparate impact lawsuit. The majority of California’s 21 nationally accredited law schools argued precisely that in decrying the high court’s decision.

Why would a standardized test for teacher licensing be any different? In fact, I predict it would be far worse. That’s because teacher colleges already admit virtually everyone who applies. The lack of selectivity will unavoidably result in a low passage rate. For example, unlike most states, California allows graduates of unaccredited schools and those accredited only by the state to take the bar exam. That is likely a factor in the low pass rate compared with other states.

The larger issue is whether there is a better way. I favor performance assessment. I liken it to auditioning for a part in a show. Those who possess a bachelor’s degree from an accredited school would be asked to teach a lesson in front of a group of students. They would be rated by a panel of trained evaluators licensed in the subject being taught. I emphasize the latter because subject matter knowledge is as important as pedagogical expertise. I realize that performance assessment is not perfect, but what evaluation strategy is?

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.