What Is the Massachusetts Teacher Exam Really Testing?

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The circumstances surrounding the test and the nature of some of the tasks explain why so many unsuspecting teacher-certification candidates are not passing.

After 13 years of teaching high school English in a German-American school in Berlin, I am currently on sabbatical and working to attain certification as a high school principal in Massachusetts. For an aspiring principal, the exam on literacy skills and communication competency became a requirement as of Aug. 31. About two weeks after dutifully paying the $70 registration fee, I received an entrance ticket with seat No. 108 and specific directions on how to get to the test site. When I rounded the corner on Oct. 3 to approach the doors of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, about 300 anxious teacher-candidates were being filmed and interviewed by reporters. Shortly after 8 a.m. the doors opened, but the registration process took so long that our group didn't start the test until 8:45. Many of the candidates who were taking the second subject test would have only a 15-minute break between two four-hour examinations.

In a small room, approximately 20 teacher-candidates sat in chairs with attached writing surfaces. A woman read the test directions aloud. Some of the registration tasks were so time-consuming that we had to ask her to pause to let us fill out the test forms properly. To my horror, I had to copy a sentence in cursive, a form of writing that I haven't used for over 30 years. Then I had to sign my name in cursive, in contrast to my actual signature. To further complicate matters, we were told that upper- and lower-case writing was required on the test. Since I only write in upper case and make the letters taller if a capital letter is required, this was also going to be a difficult task.

The exam began with a tape of a woman's appealingly modulated voice reading a dictation (about 150 words) three times. The next section developed into a protracted period of writing. I spent the next 1 1/2 hours poring over a basic academic text of approximately 500 words and trying to rewrite it in my own words (maximum allowed: 250). Writing effectively and with a strong voice has been the focus of my teaching for longer than a decade, so I took the task seriously. About 253 words later and with only two hours left to finish, nervousness set in. My original plan had been to take a break after the summary, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, and continue with refreshed vigor. Yet at 10:30 a.m., I still had a 300- to 500-word essay to write, six or seven texts to read (each with approximately 400 words and about six multiple-choice questions), and six grammar and six word definitions to compose. This was going to be very tight. No bathroom visit or drink of water for me!

The second writing question asked for a persuasive essay arguing for or against a stated controversial issue. My introductory statement of judgment contained three parts that I could develop into separate paragraphs; however, I didn't have any factual support to include, and I had no time to check whether I had achieved the 300-word minimum. With one hour left, I began writing the grammar and word definitions. My wrist and elbow started to hurt. At noon, I commenced reading the texts and answering the multiple-choice questions. A woman next to me was not going to finish and asked desperately if she could have more time. An official-looking person came in to talk with her and firmly stated that the test was a timed test and no exceptions would be made. Visibly frazzled and upset, she spilled a case full of pencils on the floor. At 12:45 p.m., the tests were taken out of our hands and, for me, the ordeal ended. My sympathies went out to those candidates who had to start another four-hour exam a mere 15 minutes later.

In addition to the problematic circumstances of the teachers' exam, the test had some questionable inconsistencies. In particular, it was split into two parts: writing and reading. Some of the candidates were taking the exam for the second or third time. The rule was that if they had passed one of the sections already, they didn't have to complete that section during the morning session. This meant that those taking only the writing or the reading part had a full four hours for one section. Possibly this was a Massachusetts Department of Education strategy to give those who failed better conditions for their second or third attempt, but somehow I felt cheated. I had raced through the summary, essay, and definition-writing sections while those other candidates could truly take their time. What about those who hadn't passed either of the sections? They were most in need of extra time, but their conditions hadn't changed at all. Another time problem emerged for those candidates who had to take a subject exam. A short, 15-minute break between the two four-hour tests is inhumane. It took me the rest of the day to recover from the morning session alone. Why weren't we let in at 7:15 a.m., so we could start the test on time?

I had to ask myself, "What is this exam trying to test?" Whether a candidate can write in cursive or in upper and lower case? Whether a person can write well under time pressure? Whether the test-taker has a strong wrist and good physical stamina? I support setting standards for teachers that require competency in communication and literacy. Helping others develop these competencies has been the focus of my life's work. However, taking the test has given me an insider's view. The circumstances surrounding the test and the nature of some of the tasks explain why so many unsuspecting teacher-certification candidates are not passing. The test simply does not help prospective teachers and administrators demonstrate the skills they may possess that will render them effective and inspiring educators for our children.

Whitney Sterling, a native of Hanover, N.H., has taught high school English at the bilingual John F. Kennedy School in Berlin, Germany, for the past 11 years. He is currently studying at the Boston College school of education in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Page 37

Published in Print: November 25, 1998, as What Is the Massachusetts Teacher Exam Really Testing?
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