Teacher Preparation

High Noon

By Julie Blair — April 18, 2001 19 min read
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The clock is ticking for this small Texas college. Unless student test scores improve, the state will shut down its teacher-preparation program.

Anger and frustration are Timothy Wilson’s constant companions these days, twin monsters that rumbled into his life three years ago when Texas officials placed the teacher-preparation program he has long championed on a hit list for closure.

Too many students enrolled in Rio Grande College’s teacher program were flunking the battery of mandatory exit exams, state officials declared. The program was given 36 months to raise its scores or face being the first teacher- training program shut down under a high-stakes accountability law. The policy, enacted by the Texas legislature in 1998, is the only one of its kind in the nation for rating teacher-preparation programs, though a federal law will soon force other states to do so.

Despite some gains, the school has yet to leap the state’s hurdles. It is little wonder, Wilson says, because the state determines prospective teachers’ competence with a single assessment that he characterizes as so simplistic it can’t accurately measure the knowledge and skills used in a multidimensional job like teaching.

“There has got to be some kind of evaluation, but there has got to be more than one measure,” Wilson says, his normally smooth Southern drawl steeped with anxiety. “They are trying to quantify the unquantifiable.”

The professor of education isn’t the only one complaining. Many teacher-educators and administrators at public and private colleges throughout the state maintain that the way prospective teachers are tested is unfair or, at the very least, highly debatable.

“There is a lot of frustration over this, especially among the Hispanic-serving institutions and predominantly African-American schools,” says Jane C. Conoley, the dean of the college of education at Texas A&M University in College Station, an institution that is fully accredited. “For example,” she says, “a school might have worked hard to move pass rates from 40 to 75 percent, and they still fail.”

State officials, however, argue that the get-tough accountability system is necessary to protect children from bad teachers—an assessment shared by policymakers in other states who are so convinced of the Texas system’s worth that they are setting up similar accountability systems.

“It wasn’t until we put in place this accountability system that we really began to see a lot of interest in determining why [the college] students weren’t performing,” says Pamela B. Tackett, the executive director of the Texas State Board for Educator Certification, the agency that awards teaching licenses.

The Uvalde branch of Rio Grande College, a satellite of Sul Ross State University in Alpine, is located some two hours southwest of San Antonio in a forgettable, one-story beige building on the outskirts of the Southwest Texas Junior College campus.

The main mission of Rio Grande College and its sister campuses in Eagle Pass and Rio Grande is to prepare a total of 240 K-12 teachers each year. Most students who come to the school take their liberal arts classes at nearby junior colleges before enrolling in upper-level teacher-preparation courses at Rio Grande College. Many are poor, and about half of those enrolled are Hispanic, some first-generation immigrants from Mexico.

‘It wasn’t until we put in place this accountability system that we really began to see a lot of interest in determining why students weren’t performing.’

Pamela B. Tackett,
Executive Director,
Texas State Board for Educator Certification

The teachers produced at Rio Grande College are a vital resource to the economically depressed, rural region, says Frank W. Abbott, the dean of the college. Upon graduation, most return to teach in the very classrooms where they once studied, districts in which about 90 percent of those enrolled are Hispanic. They sink roots and remain in the schools for many years, a stabilizing force in the community. They typically are beloved both by the administrators who employ them and by the students they teach.

“The majority of teachers we hire are very good educators,” says Mary Ann Contreras, the principal of Eagle Pass High School, who brings nine or 10 Rio Grande College graduates on board each year. “They are very enthusiastic, very dedicated, and they do their jobs conscientiously.”

Despite such accolades, the teacher-preparation program has been found deficient by the state for the past three years because some groups of students have failed the Examination for the Certification of Educators. Dubbed the ExCet assessment, the exam is a battery of multiple-choice academic-content and pedagogy tests.

According to state law, each racial, ethnic, and gender group within a school of education must earn a cumulative passing rate of 70 percent in order for the institution to keep its teacher-preparation program in good standing.

The exam is offered five times during the academic year. If aspiring educators don’t pass the assessment the first year, they may try again the next. The state then pools the passing rates of second-year test-takers with scores from the year before and mandates a minimum passing score of 80 percent before penalizing institutions.

Starting in September 2002, first- year test-takers will have to earn a cumulative passing rate of 75 percent on the exit exam, and institutions will have to show cumulative passing rates of 85 percent.

Schools that do not meet the state’s standards retain their state accreditation, but are placed “under review.” At that time, a state oversight team is assigned to the institutions in an attempt to make improvements. If scores do not increase for two years, a state administrator is dispatched to manage the teacher-preparation program for a third year. Schools that fail to bring up scores by the end of that time lose accreditation. They are allowed to graduate those already in the program, but cannot enroll new prospects.

Proponents of the accountability plan point to improved teacher- test scores statewide as evidence that the system is doing its job. Three years ago, 16 teacher-preparation programs failed to obtain the passing rates needed for full accreditation and were placed under review. Today, only six of the 86 teacher-preparation programs that have been rated are categorized that way. (Nine others since established have yet to be judged.) Four of the schools under review have been on the hit list for only one year, while the fifth, Wiley College in Marshall, has been labeled under review for two years. Only Rio Grande College has been deemed under review for three consecutive years. Unless its teacher-education students meet the state’s standard within the next two testing periods—later this month and in June—the institution will be stripped of its teacher-training accreditation.

First-time test-takers at Rio Grande College perform consistently below the state standard—but just barely.

Only whites and women, as groups, met the state’s minimum passing rate of 70 percent during the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 academic years, earning passing rates in the low 90s and the low to mid-70s, respectively.

Hispanic and male students scored in the mid-60s to high 60s on the exit exam in the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 academic years.

No African-Americans took the exam during the 1998-1999 academic year, and the sole black student who took it in 1999-2000 received a perfect score.

‘There has got to be some kind of evaluation, but there has got to be more than one measure. They are trying to quantify the unquantifiable.’

Timothy Wilson,
Education Professor,
Rio Grande College

The school has reported increasing cumulative scores over the past few years, however. Passing rates of first-year and second-year female and white test-takers were high enough to meet the state’s standard of 80 percent since the 1996-97 academic year. Hispanic students met that standard in 1998-99 and 1999-2000.

Both students and professors here point to half a dozen reasons why Hispanics and men have fallen short on the assessment.

They cite bilingual students’ lack of language proficiency and the often-lengthy lapse between students’ completion of liberal arts courses and their pursuit of teacher certification.

“Should they be able to read English? Should they value reading? They absolutely should,” says R. Vic Morgan, the president of Sul Ross State University. “If we’re not doing a good job in preparing Hispanic teachers, we need a wake-up call, so let’s look at the scores and work on them. But do you shut down a program because pass rates are not good in one area?”

Other variables are just as important.

Economically disadvantaged students are likely to have received lesser-quality precollegiate educations than their better-off classmates did, administrators and professors say. Moreover, nontraditional students may bear the burden of working full time and raising young children during their training. In addition, many students have to drive the dusty, 183-mile loop connecting Rio Grande College’s three campuses, a logistical impediment that takes away valuable study time.

Officials at the colleges also blame the state for barring extensive pedagogical training, yet testing such knowledge on the exit exam. A state law, implemented in 1991, prohibits prospective teachers from taking more than 18 hours of pedagogical coursework—including student teaching—in an attempt to emphasize subject-area knowledge. Students at Rio Grande College typically take only three or four methods courses, Dean Abbott says.

“When you take a physics or algebra or chemistry class, they teach you how to do the problems,” says Laura Baraja, a senior at Rio Grande College. “But they’re not teaching you how to teach the kids what you know.”

The most significant problem, though, is the exit exam doesn’t allow test-takers to convey all the idiosyncrasies of their teacher-preparation experience, Morgan says. Nor does it explore teacher-hopefuls’ strengths and weaknesses in a comprehensive way. The state can gauge those skills only by employing a battery of measures including standardized tests, portfolios, site visits, and discussions with students, he argues.

“The test doesn’t have any validity,” Morgan contends. “There’s been no study done that says if you score well on this test, you’ll be a good teacher.”

‘We’ve never been in as good a shape as we are now. As we look at the numbers, I know we will be successful.’

Frank W. Abbott,
Rio Grande College

But proponents of the single- measure exam argue that the assessment is designed simply to identify which demographic groups and institutions are having trouble meeting a minimum bar. Students attending Rio Grande College face no more difficulties than their counterparts in communities such as Brownsville or El Paso with similar demographic and socioeconomic profiles, advocates of the system add.

“It is important to understand students’ backgrounds, but I believe that we have to have a standard that indicates what a teacher knows,” Tackett of the state certification board says. “Our standards and tests do that, and I don’t think they are unrealistic in their difficulty. They don’t go beyond any expectation that any parent has.”

The outcry over the accountability system has been surprising, she says, because Texas colleges and universities had long broken out their data for different groups of students on exit exams before the implementation of the 1998 law. They knew exactly where they had problems, but didn’t fix them before being made accountable for their faults, she says.

One concern will be addressed, Tackett says, when the state adds other assessments over the next few years, in compliance with the accountability law.

With the help of a $10 million federal grant, Texas officials launched a voluntary teacher-induction pilot program this school year that includes evaluating beginning educators. The program aims to train teacher-mentors, principals, and teacher-educators to examine the abilities of 2,700 participating beginning teachers. Competence will be evaluated, in part, by looking at portfolios of student and instructor work and by observing teachers in the classroom.

It is not yet known, however, how much weight will be placed on that evaluation process compared with the standardized test.

Meanwhile, the state’s inability to set up and employ multiple measures more quickly has frustrated many educators.

“The legislature says that you will use two measures, and Texas is only using one,” says Joe W. Gillespie, the dean of the college of education at Tarleton University in Stephenville. He chairs an advisory council put together by Tackett’s agency to look into the difficulties with the accountability system.

“People are sympathetic to the fact that there’s no easy solution to objectively evaluating the performance of first-year teachers,” Gillespie says, “but we would all like to have this in place.”

‘Schools hire you without certification anyway. Students know they are going to get a job.’

Deanna Kilpatrick,
Rio Grande graduate

While reliance on multiple measures is important, the use of what researchers call “disaggregated” data in a high-stakes accountability system “is absolutely the right thing to do,” says Amy Wilkins, a principal partner at the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes high achievement for poor and minority students.

“As the Census data comes out, we know that the student population is more diverse than ever, and that we need a teaching force that looks as much like the students as we can get,” Wilkins says. “It is only when we hold schools of education accountable to those individual groups that they’re going to serve minority candidates as well as white students.”

But Gillespie worries that the opposite will happen. “I’m concerned that it could inhibit some universities from recruiting minority teachers to teach,” he says. “If you’re [a school] right on the border, and Hispanics or African-Americans or males don’t score well, you may be less likely to go out and recruit those students. Disaggregating the data is exacerbating the teacher shortage.”

Rio Grande College will not lose its accreditation this summer, Dean Abbott predicts, because students will meet the standard on the test.

“We will do it, and we’ll do it essentially the same way all other schools have done it: We’ll reduce the number of people we put up to take the test, and our scores will go up,” he says. “And then, ultimately, we will implement long-term reforms which will leave people better prepared.”

Last summer, the institution increased the minimum passing scores on the reading portion of the college’s basic-skills entrance exam from 230 to 250, out of a maximum score of 300, in order for prospective teachers to be recommended for licensure by the school, Abbott says.

The school held off implementing the strategy for years, he says, because professors and administrators were committed to remaining an open-access campus. Rather than boast of tougher admissions standards, Rio Grande aimed to provide a college education to all those who sought one, even if that meant giving students remedial help. It was only when other solutions appeared to have little immediate impact on test scores that the college turned to screening prospective teachers, Abbott says.

Faculty members and administrators first worked to raise scores by realigning the teacher-preparation curriculum with the state’s K-12 standards, the dean says. They also opened dialogues with those who teach arts and sciences courses at the nearby junior colleges in an attempt to ensure that educators understood both the state standards and the testing system.

Other efforts included workshops to build test-taking skills and a more frequent administration of practice exams. New computer labs equipped with software provide opportunities for students to drill themselves on tested material. The college also began offering one-on-one remedial sessions to students who failed the exit exam, sessions that have since become mandatory.

Many of the changes were adopted in concert with administrators sent by the state licensing agency to aid the institution.

“It does appear that the things we’ve done have begun to get traction,” Abbott says.

‘If schools are going to survive, they’ve gtot to teach to the test.’

David Z. Robinson,
Author, Researcher,
National Research Council

Rio Grande College men, on average, scored a 70.37 percent on the most recent cycle of exams given this academic year. Hispanics earned a 64.06 percent, while women and non-Hispanic white students earned scores of 69.12 and 83.33, respectively. They needed 70 percent.

“We’ve never been in as good a shape as we are now,” Abbott declares. “As we look at the numbers, I know we will be successful.”

Critics of the Texas approach say it will produce results—at a very, very high price.

“If schools are going to survive, they’ve got to teach to the test,” says David Z. Robinson, a co-author of a National Research Council report on the role of standardized tests in teacher preparation and licensure. “You’re forcing them to focus on 10 or 20 percent of what teachers should know and ignore the rest.”

Robinson also warns that Hispanic educators who do not typically perform as well as their white peers on standardized tests will be locked out of the profession in a state where bilingual educators are desperately needed.

Others question whether meaningful change has really taken hold here in Uvalde.

“I have seen nothing that indicates either way whether or not their teaching is aligned with the state competencies, especially those on the ExCet,” says Dan McLendon, the state monitor dispatched earlier this academic year to manage the school.

And Gloria A. Rivera, the dean of instructional services at Southwest Texas Junior College, from which Rio Grande College draws many students, says she had been unaware there was a problem with the test scores until only a few weeks ago.

“That was the first time we talked about the issue,” Rivera says. Now that she knows, she says she will cooperate with Rio Grande College to the fullest extent to improve students’ educational experiences.

Meanwhile, only a handful of the machines purchased for the new computer lab in Uvalde are actually up and running, says William A. Tindol, a professor of education and mathematics at Rio Grande College.

He retrieves a key from an administrator, unlocks an office door, and points to several tiers of unopened boxes containing hardware.

Then, he walks back to his office and points to a bookshelf containing several 4-inch- thick study guides he’s prepared for students who need remedial help. Few students, he says, have taken advantage of his pledge to help them pass the exit exam.

“There’s one young lady who has failed multiple times,” Tindol says. “I keep telling her, ‘You need to come in at least once a week, and we need to go over the test items.’ She promises to come in, but she’s never been here yet. What can I do to mentor that student?”

‘The test doesn’t have any validity. There’s been no study done that says if you score well on this test, you’ll be a good teacher.’

R. Vic Morgan,
Sul Ross State University

Rio Grande graduate Sandra Contreras says that she and many of her colleagues are working hard, but that the services provided by the college aren’t sufficient. The 3rd grade teacher failed one portion of the exit exam five times, and another section three times, before meeting the state standard.

“In the workshops, they just went over what was in the books,” Contreras says. “They gave us no hints on how to do well.”

What’s more, students say the incentive to excel on the exam sometimes vanishes when they realize licensure is unnecessary to work in Texas classrooms. Educators can teach up to two years in a public school in the Lone Star State without a permanent license and then transfer to a private school, a career move chosen by many frustrated by the assessment.

“They hire you without certification anyway,” says Deanna Kilpatrick, a Rio Grande graduate who failed the early-childhood portion of the exit exam by 1 point, but became certified to teach 2nd grade nonetheless. “Students know they are going to get a job.”

Some faculty members contend that state officials are faltering in their responsibility to help Rio Grande College improve. The consultants, they argue, spend too little time on campus and make suggestions that are flat-out wrong for the institution.

“The major problem was that they wanted to superimpose their ideas on an organizational structure that was vastly different from the one they were working with,” says Elmer Ireton, the chairman of Rio Grande’s department of education.

For example, state consultants advised the institution to set up field-based courses in which prospective teachers would work extensively with students in their own K-12 classrooms, Ireton says. While such classes would be useful, they are almost always incompatible with the schedules of students who work during the school day.

That suggestion was one of many proposed based on prospective teachers’ need for more interaction with children in the schools, says McLendon, the state monitor.

“My role was not to say, “Here it is, 1-2-3-4,’ but to help them work through the problems we identify for them,” he says. “We help them make contacts with other programs, help them identify voids, and help them identify individuals that deal with those kinds of things.”

As the debate continues in the Lone Star State, policymakers elsewhere are using its accountability system as a model for their own policies.

The Texas approach figured prominently in a plan recently floated in Georgia by a panel appointed by the governor. The plan would require 80 percent of every racial and ethnic group to earn passing scores on exit exams for teacher programs to maintain their accreditation. Other criteria would also be considered before closing down a program.

Lawmakers in New York adopted an assessment system similar to Texas’ that went into effect last year. Under that plan, 80 percent of prospective teachers must pass a standardized exam in order for teacher- preparation programs to be accredited by the state, says Daniel Kinley, the director of legislation for the state education department. Other types of teacher evaluations are also used in making that determination, he adds.

The pressure to create such plans originates, in part, from a federal mandate laid out in Title II of the Higher Education Act when that law was reauthorized in 1998. The law compels states to write standards for all teacher-preparation programs, identify any low-performing institutions, and rank schools according to criteria designed by policymakers by this coming October.

“Just having to go through the exercise and rank teacher education programs is going to put the focus on performance in ways that states haven’t traditionally done before,” says Eric Hirsch, a senior policy analyst for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

But back here in Uvalde, students, professors, and administrators are concentrating only on the work at hand.

“We’re going to get off the list,” Abbott avows, “and we’re not going to get ourselves back into this situation.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 18, 2001 edition of Education Week as High Noon


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