Teacher Preparation

Most Licensure Tests Are Weak Measures of Teachers’ ‘Science of Reading’ Knowledge

By Sarah Schwartz — November 07, 2023 6 min read
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Most tests that elementary teachers take to enter the profession don’t adequately measure their knowledge of best practices for reading instruction, a new analysis contends.

The report, from the research and policy group the National Council on Teacher Quality, analyzed the 25 different tests that states use to assess prospective elementary teachers in this area. NCTQ gave passing marks to just 10 of these tests, rating four of them as acceptable, and six as strong.

How elementary teachers are prepared to teach reading has become a central topic in the “science of reading” movement, a national push to align literacy instruction with evidence-based practices. Some in the education field, including NCTQ, make the case that stronger licensure tests will lead to better student reading outcomes. But changes to state licensing systems, especially those that introduce new requirements, have long been controversial.

Most states—29 of them and the District of Columbia—use one or more of the 15 tests that NCTQ rated as weak.

“Having a weak licensure test in place costs teachers, costs districts, and ultimately costs students,” said Heather Peske, the president of NCTQ.

Licensure tests are designed to confirm that teachers have the knowledge and skills they need to do their jobs, Peske said. If the tests don’t meet that goal, teachers may not realize they’re ill-prepared, and districts and states may have to spend money on additional teacher training and support, she said.

A recent wave of state legislation has sought to bring the “science of reading” into schools, mandating that districts use methods and materials aligned to the evidence base on how kids learn to read.

What Is the 'Science of Reading'?

In a science of reading framework, teachers start by teaching beginning readers the foundations of language in a structured progression—like how individual letters represent sounds and how those sounds combine to make words. ...

At the same time, teachers are helping students build their vocabulary and their knowledge about the world through read-alouds and conversations. Eventually, teachers help students weave these skills together like strands in a rope, allowing them to read more and more complex texts.

Most teachers in the United States weren’t trained in this framework. Instead, the majority say that they practice balanced literacy, a less structured approach that relies heavily on teacher choice and professional judgment. While the majority of students in balanced literacy classrooms receive some phonics instruction, it may not be taught in the explicit, systematic way that researchers have found to be most effective for developing foundational reading skills.

Students are generally “reading” short books of their choice very early on, even if they can’t sound out all the words. Teachers encourage kids to use multiple sources of information—including pictures and context clues—to guess at what the text might say.

Often, these laws include training for current teachers, in part to make up for gaps in some preservice-preparation programs that neglect aspects of the foundations of literacy. A separate NCTQ analysis from June of this year found that 3 out of 4 elementary teacher-preparation programs don’t adequately cover all core components of reading instruction.

“States need to take a systematic approach, and part of the system is focusing on the preparation of teachers coming into classrooms and schools,” Peske said. “We’re advocating for states to set very clear standards for teacher-preparation programs about how they should prepare teachers to teach reading.”

But licensure tests are also an important piece of the puzzle, she said.

“We can’t continue to assign children to teachers who do not have the knowledge and skills to teach them how to read, aligned to the science of reading,” Peske said.

Weak tests don’t address components of reading, combine reading with other subjects

NCTQ rated tests as “acceptable” if they adequately covered the five components of reading as listed in the 2000 National Reading Panel Report—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. These tests also couldn’t evaluate prospective teachers on more than three practices that NCTQ identified as contrary to reading research, among them miscue analysis, the use of leveled text, or guided reading.

(Those three practices are associated with balanced literacy and have been criticized for a lack of research supporting them. Miscue analysis is related to the three-cueing system, which researchers argue can undermine word-reading skill. Leveled texts purport to match books to kids’ reading levels, but may not ensure all students read challenging texts, while guided reading has incorporated both cueing and leveled texts.)

Licensure tests were rated as “strong” if they more fully covered the five components of reading, and addressed the needs of certain student subgroups, including English learners and struggling readers. (For more on NCTQ’s rating methodology, see this document.)

Tests were rated as weak for different reasons. Ten didn’t adequately address all components of reading, and one included too much emphasis on practices contrary to research. Five combined reading with other subjects such as social studies or science—a decision that the report argues could muddle what’s known about a teacher’s knowledge, since high scores in another subject could make up for low performance in the reading portion.

Major testing companies, such as ETS and Pearson, offered both strong and weaker options for states. Some of their tests were rated “strong”—such as Pearson’s Foundations of Reading test and ETS’ Praxis Teaching Reading: Elementary—but NCTQ rated others as weak.

“ETS is continually exploring new ways to serve the educators of tomorrow and how we reliably measure the competencies they need to succeed in the classroom,” Paul Gollash, vice president of K-12 Solutions at ETS, said in a statement. “We know there is much more work to be done, and we appreciate those who are committed to progressing the field forward to create meaningful change.”

Pearson declined to comment.

The report recommends that state leaders transition to stronger reading licensure tests, and that testing companies “shore up” weaknesses in existing products.

How important are licensure tests?

Exactly how strict teacher licensing requirements should be has long been a source of debate in the education field.

Advocates for higher standards say that they’re necessary to ensure future teachers have the knowledge and skills they need to be effective. But critics argue that licensing exams can bar otherwise qualified candidates from the profession, and that the tests don’t measure other qualities—such as being able to connect with and engage students—that could lead to success in the classroom.

In California, the state’s commission on teacher credentialing is planning to replace the notoriously challenging Reading Instruction Competence Assessment—rated as “strong” by NCTQ—with a portfolio-based assessment by July 2025.

Critics of the RICA test have argued that it’s outdated and racially biased. But proponents have said that it tests information teachers need to know—and that the fault lies with the state’s preparation programs, which don’t emphasize the content.

Nationally, “there is a fair amount of research that connects teacher performance on different licensure tests to the eventual achievement of students in different subject areas,” said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research, who studies teacher-licensing exams.

Some tests are better predictors than others, though. And there’s a stronger relationship between teacher test performance and student outcomes in “mathematically oriented subjects,” and for students in higher grades, Goldhaber said.

At the elementary level, these relationships are weaker, and in some cases not statistically significant, he said. In part, he said, this difference could come down to measurement. It’s more straightforward to gauge teachers’ knowledge about high school biology, for example, than to measure whether teachers of young children have a firm grasp on the pedagogy that will make them effective in the classroom.

Still, he said, there’s not much research on the relationship between teacher test performance and student achievement in the earliest elementary grades, when students are learning how to read. Most of the research focuses on grades 3-8, Goldhaber said, as that’s when federal law requires students be tested.

“Conceptually, it makes sense that teachers should know the science of reading,” he said. If tests assess the specific skills that teachers need to improve children’s outcomes, it follows that stronger tests could lead to better student results, he said.


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