States Raising Bar for Teachers Despite Pending Shortage

By Jeff Archer — March 25, 1998 6 min read
Gary R. Galluzzo

Thousands of would-be teachers will sit down this Saturday to take tests that will help screen those who can enter an education school or become a licensed educator. And in a growing number of states, the bar has never been higher.

David Haselkorn

The raising of standards for the next generation of teachers comes as forecasts warn of pending teacher shortages. Still, states appear to be resisting the urge to fall back on the law of supply and demand, at least when it comes to setting passing scores for the Praxis tests--the Educational Testing Service’s teacher preparation and licensure exams to be given March 28 at hundreds of sites throughout the country.

“We ought to be doing this [setting stricter requirements],” said Gary R. Galluzzo, the dean of the graduate school of education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. “Historically, every time we find ourselves pressed up against shortages, we haven’t gone out and found more good teachers. We’ve lowered the bar, and we pay for that for the next 20 years.”

Transition Periods

Many states are seizing the opportunity to set high cutoff scores as they switch from the old assessments once known as the National Teacher Examinations, which were born in the late 1940s, to the new Praxis series of tests, which the Princeton, N.J.-based testing service unveiled in 1993.

They’re also switching at a time when a wave of retirements and record-high student enrollments mean the country will need to hire some 2 million teachers in the next decade, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates. Such predictions, and the shortages schools are already experiencing in high-growth regions and urban areas, prompted President Clinton in his State of the Union Address to propose spending $7.3 billion in the next five years to help districts hire 100,000 new teachers and reduce class sizes.

Such states as Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania are in the process of raising their cutoff scores on Praxis I and Praxis II. New Hampshire plans to use the tests for the first time next fall. Meanwhile, Virginia recently set the highest cutoff in the country.

Unlike the purely multiple-choice NTE, which the ETS also produces, the Praxis exams also require test-takers to write essays and analyses and to respond to pedagogical questions about their fields.

Prospective teachers often take the preprofessional Praxis I test, which includes sections on mathematics, reading, and writing, as they’re applying to a education school in the second year of college. The Praxis II exams include subject-area tests--ranging from biology to world history--and students usually take them as they’re completing their teacher training program and seeking an initial license or certificate.

Thirty-six states now include parts of Praxis in their licensure requirements. Ohio and California are piloting Praxis III as a way to evaluate new teachers once they’re in the classroom. Rather than a paper-and-pencil exam, Praxis III involves classroom observations and reviews of teachers’ and students’ work.

A Confidence Booster

The transition to the new tests--which use different grading scales--has given states pause to look at their passing rates. In Pennsylvania, education officials found that more than 90 percent of prospective teachers were passing parts of the NTE on the first try. In some cases, students who got half the questions wrong on tests still could receive a license.

So when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge proposed raising standards for teachers last fall, the Republican called for setting higher cutoff scores on Praxis. The state estimates that the new passing scores it is phasing in will yield passing rates closer to 70 percent.

“We have in our state high standards for our accountants; law students have to take the bar exam, and medical students have to take exams that are very challenging,” said Michael Poliakoff, the state’s deputy secretary for postsecondary and higher education. “So why should we allow someone into a profession which arguably will have a bigger impact on our commonwealth without having a challenging exam?”

Education officials in New Hampshire, which hasn’t required such tests, agree. The state school board last July approved a plan to begin phasing in a Praxis test requirement this fall. The board will consider setting cutoff scores later this spring.

“This is creating a confidence level among parents and the public that the people who want to teach have to at least have basic skills,” said John Lewis, the school board chairman.

The Highest Hurdle

When Virginia began requiring prospective teachers to take the Praxis I test in 1996, it set the highest cutoff scores in the country--178 in math and reading, and 176 in writing. The tests are graded on a scale of 150 to 190. Other states’ passing scores go as low as 168.

As a result of the higher cutoff, about one-third of the students tested in Virginia couldn’t pass Praxis I the first time around.

“A lot of people I know failed one section out of the three,” said Danna Richardson, who is working on a master’s degree in education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. “A lot of my friends are retaking the test this summer.”

Having aced all three parts of the test on the first try, the 21-year-old said she agrees states should have high expectations for new teachers. But Ms. Richardson and many of her classmates also believe it was unfair of Virginia to set the bar higher than any other state did.

“We should have high standards because we will be the ones who are teaching others,” she said. “But it should be a national standard, instead of one being set by the states. Why should we be judged differently in one state than in another?”

Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, expressed concern about the failure rate. ETS officials later pointed out that if all 19 states, plus the District of Columbia, that use Praxis I had the same high cutoff scores, nearly half the test-takers would have failed.

“Virginia students are actually doing quite well compared with the national standard,” said Charlotte Solomon, who directs the testing service’s Praxis program.

Although the ETS does not suggest cutoffs, it does recommend a process for setting them, and so far all states have followed its general outline, Ms. Solomon said. Typically, state officials convene teachers and academics in each field who compare the tests against the state’s education standards and recommend what they believe is a fair passing score for a minimally competent teacher.

Minority Concerns

Many education school leaders praise their states’ efforts to raise the profession’s standards. But some also worry that the high cutoff might disproportionately affect minority students, at a time when the low representation of minorities in the teaching force is a widespread concern. Only about 7 percent of public school teachers are non-Hispanic blacks, for example, compared with nearly 17 percent among K-12 students in public schools, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“This could have a major impact on the number of minority teachers that are entering the profession, if the figures hold as I have seen them,” said John Oehler, the dean of the education school at Virginia Commonwealth. “We would be losing up to 70 percent of our persons of color.”

Claims that a similarly used exam called the California Basic Educational Skills Test had such effects in the Golden State prompted a class action several years ago by minority teacher-candidates who had failed parts of it. (“Calif. Basic-Skills Test for Teachers Upheld,” Sept. 25, 1996.)

A U.S. district court judge ruled against the plaintiffs in 1996, and a federal appeals court decision is expected soon.

But higher failure rates only point out the need to improve student preparation and recruitment, especially among underrepresented groups, said David Haselkorn, the president of Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a Belmont, Mass.-based organization that advocates improving school-hiring practices.

“We’re in a climate of raised standards for both students and teachers, and that’s good,” he said. “But we should not be blinded to assuming that all we have to do is raise the standards, and that everything else will fall into place.”