States' Teacher Tests Too Simple, Study Concludes

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State efforts to improve teacher quality by requiring that candidates pass a test before receiving their licenses may weed out only the most incompetent teachers, according to the coordinator of a new federal study.

The report, "What's Happening in Teacher Testing: An Analysis of State Teacher Testing Practices," shows that, with the exception of Alaska and Iowa, every state has adopted a teacher-testing program of some kind, or plans to do so.

As of April, 44 states required--or planned to require--that prospective teachers pass a written test in order to be fully certified. Twenty-seven states had similar requirements for admission to teacher-education programs. And three states--Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas--required tests of veteran teachers.

'Simple Literacy'

But according to Lawrence M. Rudner, who helped design and coordinate the study, many of the testing programs do not provide "adequate standards" to improve the quality of instruction in the classroom.

Mr. Rudner, president of the research and consulting firm lmp Associates, said that most teacher tests focus on "simple literacy" skills, such as basic reading, writing, and mathematics. They do not require candidates to demonstrate advanced levels of competence.

"At best, such programs can assure that teachers are not illiterate," Mr. Rudner wrote in the report.

He stressed that the conclusions were his own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Education Department, which produced the study.

Mr. Rudner also asserted that the "common practice" of establishing "extremely low passing scores" for the tests ensures that "only the grossly incompetent are denied access to the profession."

For example, the study analyzed data on 10 states that use the National Teacher Examinations, a set of standardized tests created by the Educational Testing Service.

Many Still Do Not Pass

Applicants in those states had to answer only an average of 47 out of 104 questions correctly to be certified.

"Given that the tests are not difficult and that the passing scores appear to be relatively low, one would expect virtually everyone to pass teacher-certification examinations," wrote Mr. Rudner. "Yet, this is not the case."

In the 22 states that make their pass-fail rates public, about 17 percent of teacher candidates fail the tests required for certification.

For the subgroup of 10 states that use the NTE and report such data, the average passing rate is about 87 percent.

The report also notes that over the next two years, 20 states will be reporting the results of teacher tests for the first time.

Mr. Rudner and J.T. Sandefur, dean of the college of education and behavioral sciences at Western Kentucky University, helped design the federal study and wrote several sections of the report.

A number of other experts in the field contributed chapters to the analysis.

Minority Performance

The report notes that minority candidates generally fare much worse on written teacher exams than do whites.

But a chapter on the impact of testing on minority groups, written by Bernard R. Gifford, dean of the graduate school of education at the University of California at Berkeley, states that the performance of minority candidates is improving.

In California, 33 percent of black candidates taking the state test required for certification passed in 1985--up from 26 percent in 1983. The passing rate for white test-takers in 1985, however, was 81 percent.

Mr. Gifford suggested that the problem was less with the tests than with the early education received by minority students.

"What teacher-test results indicate is that the education of our children, especially those from minority and low-income families, must be improved," he wrote.

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