Top-Scoring PRAXIS II-Takers Aren't Education Majors, ETS Says

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Aspiring educators who do best on a well-known licensing exam attend college full time but don't earn degrees in education, a study has found.

In what is being billed as the first extensive body of national research examining the link between teacher-preparation programs and the performance of future educators on licensing exams, researchers found evidence that runs contrary to many common beliefs about teacher preparation.

Schools of education, they found, should focus more heavily on content than pedagogy. And people who attend college full time demonstrate a better understanding of what is taught in the K-12 classroom than do nontraditional students.

For More Information

The study, "Teaching the Teachers: Different Settings, Different Results," is available from the Educatonal Testing Service. (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)

"Some policymakers, such as the signers of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation Manifesto, contend that teacher education institutions are largely ineffective," writes Harold Wenglinsky, the author of the report. "Others, such as the members of the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, contend that teacher education institutions are largely effective. This research suggests that the reality is somewhere in the middle."

40,000 Candidates

The study, released last week by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, comes at a time when policymakers are both scrambling to head off a national teacher shortage and attempting to fill classrooms with highly qualified teachers—goals that often seem incompatible.

Harold Wenglinsky

To determine which types of teacher-training programs are most effective, researchers at the ETS aligned scores from nearly 40,000 teacher-candidates on the PRAXIS II exam taken between 1994 and 1997 with characteristics of 152 schools of education in the Southeastern United States. PRAXIS II, which gauges content knowledge and asks some questions about pedagogy, is one of the nonprofit test-maker's products. Researchers looked at private, public, small, and large colleges and universities.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia use the exam as a criterion for entry into the teaching profession.

Teacher-candidates who posted the highest scores on the exam were full-time students and had attended large, private institutions where graduate students were plentiful, according to the study. Top-performing students also had chosen majors other than education at institutions in which small proportions of college budgets were devoted to teacher education.

In addition, the institutions that high-scoring prospective teachers attended had higher percentages of minority faculty members than did those schools whose graduates did not perform as well on PRAXIS.

The study, however, warns against crediting the high scores to the quality of the private schools of education. Such institutions are generally attended by students who are better prepared for college and have families who value education and have more money, the report says.

Work Mischaracterized?

The findings do little to bolster the argument that career-switchers are as knowledgeable about subject matter for the classroom as traditional students.

"It would seem that more mature students do not measure up to [traditional] college students," said Arthur E. Wise, the president of the Washington-based National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which evaluates some 100 education schools each year. "That's surprising, especially given the great emphasis politicians are placing on recruiting nontraditional students," he said.

"Clearly, schools of education need to remain open to such candidates, but they can't guarantee they will bring a high level of content knowledge with them," he said.

The report draws the same conclusion, and further recommends that teacher-preparation programs place a greater emphasis on preparation in academic-content areas and focus less on pedagogy. It also suggests that policymakers provide low-income students more access to top-notch preparation programs through scholarships and other incentive programs.

The study's outcomes are predictable given the data used, and do not provide an accurate picture of what teachers know and are able to do in the classroom, argued Barnett Berry, the director for policy and state partnerships for the National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, a blue ribbon panel of public officials, business and community leaders, and educators housed at Columbia University. Nor do the data identify the best characteristics of teacher- training programs, he said.

"First of all, they mischaracterized the work of the commission and its recommendations," Mr. Berry said. "Many, many teacher- education programs are far, far off the mark."

In addition, the researchers "looked at data from PRAXIS II, which doesn't measure pedagogy," Mr. Berry said. "Teacher education programs ought to be judged on how well they develop and grow prospective teachers and how those people hold up to standards. You just can't look at an aggregate score."

Moreover, he added, prospective educators who have recently graduated from college will do well on content tests because they've studied the material more recently than those who have turned to teaching later in life.

Advocates of alternative routes to teaching also expressed skepticism over the report's findings.

Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, said that the ETS "has no business making policy pronouncements on the basis of how teachers do on [the organization's] own test. They have a vested interest," he contended.

The key to assessing teacher-preparation programs is to look at the impact educators have on student achievement, he argued, rather than outcomes on teacher exams.

Vol. 20, Issue 5, Page 6

Published in Print: October 4, 2000, as Top-Scoring PRAXIS II-Takers Aren't Education Majors, ETS Says
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