A federally financed group that offers a route to teacher certification through standardized tests alone has reached its fourth anniversary amid signs of organizational trouble and a glimmer of future promise.
Kathleen A. Madigan, the founding president of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, resigned last month. Meanwhile, the Education Leaders Council, the conservative-leaning group of education officials that got the board started in 2001, has been labeled a “high-risk grantee” for its handling of millions of dollars in federal grants.
Then, late last month, Kate Walsh, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, quit the ABCTE board of directors. Ms. Walsh’s group, which promotes teaching-related policies such as performance pay and alternative certification, was also spun off by the ELC, but she has been trying to distance her organization from its onetime parent.
Ms. Walsh was apparently unhappy over the handling of five contracts that the ABCTE awarded to AccountabilityWorks, a Washington-based consulting group that announced its intention to merge with the ELC about a year ago.
Besides the organizational turmoil at its Washington headquarters, the ABCTE, which from its founding in 2001 has represented a challenge to established education groups, has neither courted nor attracted a wide range of supporters.
Nevertheless, the board—the recipient of $40 million in federal grants—seems to be making some headway on the ground, especially compared with its dismal numbers on participation from last winter.
The group’s Passport to Teaching program certifies aspiring teachers, typically career-changers and recent college graduates who want to teach, on the basis of their performance on two national standardized tests, one of academic content and one of classroom practice, plus a criminal-background check. But just four states—Florida, Idaho, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania—have accepted the credential for all ABCTE’s tests, severely restricting the worth of its stamp of approval. Teachers seeking standard certification in all but New Hampshire must satisfy other requirements as well.
Last December, only 13 people had been certified; another 109 were taking part in the program, which costs $500 and includes a review of the candidate’s readiness for the tests. A few months later, the certification group launched an aggressive marketing campaign, holding mass “open houses,” first in Florida, which needs tens of thousands of new teachers each year. By last month, 78 people had earned the certification, and 655 were in the pipeline nationwide.
The improved numbers, though, might not buy the group enough credibility to easily overcome two months that saw the departure of the group’s president, a vice president, and a board member, as questions about marketing strategies and contract awards swirled.
Ms. Walsh said that by the time she resigned from the board last month, she had grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with the way decisions were made at the ABCTE and was not convinced that a change at the top would be enough to produce the transparency the group has, in her view, lacked. Ms. Walsh herself has felt the repercussions from a lack of transparency: She apologized earlier this year for writing opinion pieces that appeared in newspapers without mention of the underwriter, the U.S. Department of Education.
Other ABCTE board members and Dave Saba, the acting chief executive officer, said the group had taken action to ensure that the awarding of several contracts to the consulting firm AccountabilityWorks was neither illegal nor unwise.
The contracts, one of which was curtailed around the time Ms. Walsh resigned, raised questions, top ABCTE officials say, because of the personal and professional relationship between the former ABCTE president, Ms. Madigan, and Theodor Rebarber, who heads the consulting firm.
The two once worked together as executives for a charter-school-management firm, and Mr. Rebarber has been the executive director of the ELC for about a year, taking over from Lisa Graham Keegan, a former Arizona state schools chief. Ms. Keegan remains on the ABCTE’s executive council, the group’s top policymakers.
The Education Department last month placed restrictions on money approved by Congress for the ELC, which has been criticized by some of its former board members for the organization’s financial practices.
Anthony J. Colón, the chairman of the ABCTE board, said that lawyers had reviewed the legality and propriety of the transactions his board oversaw and that the board had since tightened its practices. “We’re doing the right things to ensure the integrity of the organization,” he said.
Mr. Rebarber said last week that he was proud of the work his consulting group had done.
Nina S. Rees, the Education Department official who oversees the federal grant that largely subsidizes the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence, said she had no criticisms of the group’s management.
Optimism and Reservations
The results of the ABCTE’s work so far seem to belie both the critics who said there was no need for another alternative to traditional teacher preparation and the boosters who predicted that states would readily accept the new credential.
Ms. Keegan, for instance, told USA Today in August 2003 that by the following year, “at least 25 states will accept the Passport tests as an alternative to their state certification tests.” Not only did that turn out to be five times the actual number, but the ABCTE also failed to add the nation’s most populous state when California’s licensing board turned down the credential last year.
Members of the ABCTE board said last month after Ms. Madigan stepped down that while they were pleased with the development of the certification tests, they were looking for stepped-up marketing. The exams offer certification in elementary-grades content, English, mathematics, general science, and biology, with more subjects in the offing.
“We have very good tests and not much buying-in,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a board member and the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based research and advocacy group that supports school choice, strong public school accountability, and alternative teacher certification.
Proponents of the ABCTE say that measured by its tests alone, the certification group has moved quickly and well. Hundreds of experts, including teachers, participated in devising the material to be tested, and a smaller group used a widely recognized method to set the cutoff scores, to date the only national bar for teacher tests.
But while the technical side of the exams goes little challenged, many educators and researchers express reservations about the tests’ capacity to sort prospective teachers in a way that matches classroom realities.
“You’d be hard-pressed to say any paper-and-pencil test is going to turn up all the things that are going to be effective in practice,” said Stephen P. Klein, a testing expert with the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., who has helped licensing agencies in a variety of professions. He was particularly wary of the ABCTE classroom-practices test, which is the same for all candidates, because, he said, the instructional approaches teachers need to know are intertwined with particular subject matter.
Reasoning along similar lines, Penelope M. Earley, the director of the Center for Education Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., suggested that Pennsylvania might have hit on a worthwhile modification when it decided to accept the certification on the condition that teachers with the credential be mentored in a university-run program for their first year.
Mr. Finn said the group should continue to accommodate such add-ons as long as they are “reasonable and useful” for candidates. “It’s a legitimate position for a state to take,” he said, “until the board proves the test alone is a reasonably accurate predictor of classroom effectiveness.”
Such proof is required as part of the five-year, $35 million grant the group received from the federal Department of Education in 2003 after an earlier $5 million in seed money. The certification board announced this month that it had chosen the Princeton, N.J.-based Mathematica Policy Research, a well-regarded independent organization, to conduct a five-year study comparing the teachers certified by the ABCTE with traditionally certified teachers in job retention and student learning gains.
But some researchers and education officials wonder if studies of the program’s worth have been given a high enough priority, considering the stakes.
“If you compare people who build tests for the bar exam or for medical practice, ... there are usually empirical studies done all along to give you feedback to see if the tests do what you intended them to do,” said Eva L. Baker, a testing expert at the Center for Study of Evaluation at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Anne L. Bryant, the executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, wrote in an e-mail that she looks for any certification program to show “a direct correlation” with student achievement.
She noted that while the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which awards advanced certification to experienced teachers, has done such research, “we have seen no data from ABCTE regarding the connection.”
Still, it took the NBPTS, a privately organized group founded in 1987 that has also received substantial federal funding, a dozen years to announce the first findings from investigations of its effectiveness as measured by student achievement. The national board, which now has credentialed about 40,000 teachers, moved at a stately pace in its start-up phase compared with the ABCTE, taking years to build a base of support from the national teachers’ unions, business leaders, and political officials.
In contrast to those alliances, the ABCTE has faced sharp opposition from such groups as the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and the National Education Association.
Unlike the NBPTS, which offers a credential that didn’t exist before and recognizes only experienced teachers, the ABCTE provides a way around teacher-preparation programs and seeks a simplification of the requirements posed by teacher-licensing boards.
The ABCTE also has had more problems finding its target audience—prospective teachers—than the NBPTS has in reaching teachers already in the classroom. “It’s a more difficult and diffuse market to identify and get to,” said Randy Thompson, who until August was the American board’s vice president of marketing.
The playing field might even out some, though, when the two groups compete for teachers seeking an advanced credential. The ABCTE says it is introducing its assessment for certifying “master” teachers next year.
Ms. Rees of the Education Department defended the group’s progress. “As with any new program being developed,” she said, “it takes a while for something like this to take root.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2005 edition of Education Week as Upheaval Hits Teacher-Credentialing Board