Reading & Literacy

Most States Fail to Measure Teachers’ Knowledge of the ‘Science of Reading,’ Report Says

By Sarah Schwartz — March 23, 2021 6 min read
Image shows two children ages 5 to 7 years old and a teacher, an African-American woman, holding a digital tablet up, showing it to the girl sitting next to her. They are all wearing masks, back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, trying to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

For many elementary school teachers, teaching students how to read is a central part of the job. But the majority of states don’t evaluate whether prospective teachers have the knowledge they’ll need to teach reading effectively before granting them certification, according to a new analysis from the National Council on Teacher Quality.

According to NCTQ’s evaluation of state licensure tests for teachers, 20 states use assessments that fully measure candidates’ knowledge of the “science of reading,” referencing the body of research on the most effective methods for teaching young children how to decode text, read fluently, and understand what they’re reading.

For special education teachers, a group that regularly works with students with reading difficulties, just 11 states’ certification tests meet this standard.

Previous studies have shown that early elementary teachers often have gaps in their knowledge of evidence-based practices for teaching reading, and that many teacher-preparation programs that don’t adequately cover this topic. Some preparation programs introduce strategies that aren’t supported by research.

A 2019 Education Week Research Center survey of K-2 and special education teachers found that only 11 percent said they felt “completely prepared” to teach early reading when they finished their preservice programs.

By NCTQ’s assessment, 32 states require elementary preparation programs to address the five components of reading, as defined by the National Reading Panel report released in 2000—phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

Ensuring that teachers are prepared to teach reading before they enter the classroom, and incentivizing preparation programs to provide that training, will be especially important over the next few years, said Kate Walsh, the president of NCTQ.

“In normal years, we know about a million 4th graders haven’t learned how to read,” Walsh said, referencing results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress that categorize only 35 percent of 4th graders as proficient in reading. It’s possible that the pandemic will leave students with more ground to make up, she said.

Some research has suggested that young students may need more support with reading next year. A study of 400,000 students released in December 2020 by Amplify, a digital reading company, found that students were further behind in early literacy skills at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year than they have been in previous years.

Can changes to licensure tests lead to better reading instruction?

For this analysis, NCTQ looked at content outlines, test objectives, and test prep materials for the state licensure tests given to elementary, early education, and special education teacher candidates—the three groups that are most likely to be responsible for foundational reading instruction.

The organization based its evaluation of the tests on two guiding questions: 1) whether the tests addressed each of the five components of reading, and 2) whether they assessed students on any practices that aren’t supported by evidence, like three-cueing—a method that teaches students they don’t need to rely on decoding alone to figure out what a word says, but can also make guesses based on pictures and syntax. (Three-cueing can lessen the chances that students will use their understanding of letter sounds to read through words part-by-part, taking away an opportunity for students to practice their decoding skills and making it less likely that they’ll recognize the word quickly the next time that they see it.)

Bar chart showing the State Licensure Test Requirements for Elementary Teachers on the Science of Reading

Many of the tests that didn’t meet NCTQ’s criteria paid little attention to two important components of foundational skills instruction, Walsh said: phonemic awareness (the understanding that spoken words are made up of individual sounds) and phonics (how those individual sounds are represented by letters). These two skills are building blocks to fluent reading, and without them, some students will continue to struggle with reading into higher grades.

Walsh would want to see more states start giving tests that fully assess teachers’ knowledge of the five components of reading. Giving these tests, and holding preparation programs accountable for students’ first-time pass rate, would incentivize preservice programs to devote real resources to teaching these skills, she said.

Bar chart showing the State Licensure Test Requirements for Special Education Teachers on the Science of Reading

Still, some education professors don’t place much emphasis on teaching candidates how to do explicit, systematic phonics instruction, and resist what they often call a “one-size-fits-all” approach, as Madeline Will reported in 2019.

Another hurdle, Walsh said, is that some states are also wary of adding more or tougher assessments to teacher candidates’ plates.

In some cases, reading instruction tests are the only barrier between teacher candidates and certification. In California, for example, one-third of prospective teachers fail the first time they take the Reading Instruction Competence Assessment, or RICA, as EdSource reported in 2019. First-time failure rates are higher for Black and Latino candidates, and opponents of the assessment have argued that it’s racially biased. (The majority of teachers of all races pass after multiple attempts.) The state has assembled a panel to recommend alternatives to the test.

In general, “it’s reasonable to say that teachers need to know certain things before they get classroom responsibilities of their own,” said Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research and an expert in teacher certification, who wasn’t involved with the NCTQ study. Even so, he says, any time certification tests show disparate impact on different populations of teacher candidates, it raises concerns.

It’s up to professors of teacher education, and preservice programs more broadly, to make sure that what they’re teaching is aligned to what states expect candidates to know, said Travis J. Bristol, an assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, who studies teachers’ workplace experiences.

“We’re placing an undue burden on candidates of color when the preparation programs aren’t giving students the necessary skills to pass this exam, and so these teacher candidates of color are now having to do extra work,” he said.

States should also be considering whether a paper and pencil test is the best way to determine how prepared preservice educators are, and whether a performance-based assessment might be a better demonstration of candidates’ skills, Bristol said. “There is evidence that people of color across all standardized exams do not pass them at the rate of their white peers,” he said. “I think what we have to ask ourselves is, is that the right way to determine proficiency?”

Teacher preparation programs could set a higher bar for early reading instruction, Goldhaber said, a change that would be “at least as important” as stricter testing requirements in supporting teacher knowledge and effective instruction.

“What programs do or don’t do to try to develop teacher candidates, and teach them how to teach, is really important,” he said. “And it’s that part of the system that I think we know very little about.”

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