Education Opinion

Who Should Assess Teachers?

By Lawrence M. Rudner — November 25, 1987 4 min read

Tests of professional skills can help establish meaningful standards for a given profession, which, in turn, can lead to improvements in the general level of professional competence. Such tests, however, must be generated by the profession being tested, not by government. With the recent appointment of the president and members of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the teaching profession is on its way to developing such standards.

Pointing to powerful policy goals, some of today’s Presidential and gubernatorial candidates, and many state legislators and governors before them, have advocated test-enforced standards as means of screening out unqualified individuals, attracting better qualified candidates, and generally strengthening the teaching profession. As a result of state-licensure testing programs, the public’s confidence in teachers, teaching, and the schools is expected to improve.

These expectations are not realistic; such goals cannot be served by government licensure tests. The states do not possess tests of teaching ability, nor are they able under current legal restrictions to implement tests rigorous enough to provide a meaningful standard. Rather, these goals are appropriate for certification tests administered by professional organizations, such as the bar examination for lawyers and the board-certification exams for physicians.

The terms “licensure” and “certification” are often incorrectly interchanged. Governments license individuals who prove themselves capable of fulfilling professional responsibilities, while organizations certify individuals who meet their professional standards. The distinction becomes blurred when professional-certification tests are adopted by states as licensure tests, as has happened in several fields outside of education.

Contrary to name, the teacher-licensure tests currently used in 26 states and planned for another 18 do not test actual teaching ability. Instead, they either test knowledge and skills believed to be prerequisites to teaching, or they test textbook knowledge of child development, school law, and the like. Ability to multiply decimals, for example, is covered. Ability to teach decimal multiplication, however, is not. Because these tests do not evaluate the skills a teacher needs, a candidate’s ability to pass such a test does not guarantee that he will be able to teach.

If a program testing teaching ability were available, even the President of the United States would have a hard time trying to implement it. Government teacher-licensure tests resemble other forms of employment tests and must meet certain legal standards. Following the precedent established in United States v. South Carolina, the user of a teacher-licensing test can defend the program by demonstrating that the test reflects knowledge and academic skills that prospective teachers have had an opportunity to learn--i.e., minimal skills.

In all likelihood, a government interested in breaking this pattern would have difficulty establishing new legal precedents, an expensive undertaking both politically and economically.

Government, then, is limited in its ability to provide quality assurance and renewed faith.

Not obliged to operate under the same rules as government, however, the profession itself is actively working toward those goals. In May 1986, the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy presented its vision of a restructured teacher-certification and licensure system. Because of the sponsorship of this vision by the Carnegie Corporation of New York (which introduced the basic concept of high-school academic credits, helped create the Educational Testing Service, and reorganized medical education in the United States), because of the funding the Carnegie Corporation is providing, and because of endorsements by virtually every major educational organization, the vision is being taken quite seriously.

The Carnegie forum has created a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards responsible for establishing and promoting high standards for the field. Under the plan, the board would certify individuals as meeting standards developed by the profession for entry-level teachers or for advanced-level master teachers.

Rather than concentrating on written tests of basic skills, board certification would focus on an individual’s ability to provide instruction. For entry-level teachers, the assessment would include simulations of classroom situations and observations by board-certified teachers. Advanced certification would require advanced competence and the ability to demonstrate leadership. Not tests a 6th grader or 8th grader could pass, these examinations would be on a par with the bar exam and the medical boards.

Contrary to the wishes of politicians, government cannot mandate quality. At best, it can assure that those admitted to the profession possess basic academic skills. To accomplish the goals that were originally touted--improved quality of teachers and increased public confidence--a new program is required. It is not going to come from the politicians; it must come from the profession.

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1987 edition of Education Week as Who Should Assess Teachers?