Teaching Profession

Popular Licensing Exam To Get Solo Cutoff Score

By Bess Keller — June 11, 2003 5 min read
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A test vendor and an accrediting group are joining together to set a national standard on a widely used teacher-accreditation exam, a move likely to add to the pressure on states as they oversee teacher-preparation programs deemed weak.

The action is one of three this spring by the Educational Testing Service or the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education promoting test- defined teacher quality.

The ETS announced last month that it has expanded its collaboration with NCATE to come up with a single cutoff score on the Princeton, N.J., test-maker’s Praxis II test. Twenty-three states currently require that test for teacher licensing, according to a survey conducted by Education Week for Quality Counts 2003.

“At the end of this exercise, we will have a statement by the profession of expectations for what a new teacher should know and be able to do, and that information will be publicly available, and any state that wishes may use it,” said Arthur E. Wise, the president of NCATE, which represents 34 national education groups and accredits some 660 teacher-preparation programs. Its headquarters is in Washington.

As a matter of legal responsibility, each state sets its own minimum passing score on whatever teacher-licensing test it chooses to use, if any. The wide disparity in cutoff scores has bothered some observers, including members of Congress and advocates of higher standards for teacher quality. They complain that the situation undercuts the worth of a federal requirement that states publish the test results of their would-be teachers.

A national benchmark applied to the scores on teacher-licensing tests could make possible more meaningful comparisons between states and among different institutions preparing teachers. If high enough, the benchmark could cast low performers into stark relief.

“We feel it’s important to use the Praxis to improve the quality of teacher education and teacher output,” said Kurt Landgraf, the chief executive officer of the ETS. The nonprofit testing giant, best known for the SAT college- entrance exam, competes with National Evaluation Systems, of Amherst, Mass., for the vast majority of the nation’s teacher-licensing-test business.

Accreditation Tied to Scores

While the proposed national benchmark will as yet play no part in NCATE’s accrediting process, the group decided last month for the first time to make performance on state licensure exams a criterion for accreditation. Starting with the roughly 120 teacher- preparation programs that the group is set to review this coming fall, an 80 percent passing rate on their respective states’ exams will be one necessary condition for accreditation, Mr. Wise said.

“That represents a major step forward in itself,” he argued. “Even with the existing variability [in cutoff scores], a number of institutions will be challenged by our new policy.”

The American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education, which has expressed concern about the policy, recently estimated that 30 institutions now accredited by NCATE do not currently meet such a standard. AACTE is a member of NCATE.

Along with announcing the coming national standard on the Praxis II, which mainly tests teachers on their subject-area knowledge, the ETS last month unveiled a plan to formally recognize high scores on the exam starting in September. Mr. Landgraf said the cutoff mark had not yet been determined, but that those recognized would have to “score in the upper quartile or better.”

The recognition will create a kind of interstate credential for newly minted teachers, making it a potential competitor for the tests being produced under the auspices of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. The Washington-based group, with strong links to the Education Leaders Council, which has attracted chief state school officers and other education officials critical of what they see as the education establishment, hopes to have its first wave of exams ready this summer. (“New Teacher Board Parts Ways With ACT,” April 23, 2003.)

Mr. Landgraf said the recognition would be available to test-takers who scored at or above the cutoff mark on past as well as future tests.

A third new venture for the ETS, which has been moving energetically into the precollegiate market of late, will be to offer test-answer analysis and study guidance to those who fail the Praxis test and want to retake it. The service will cost between $75 and $150, depending on the makeup of the test.

‘A Positive Development’

The prospect of greater standardization in the area of assessing teacher quality, including the use of national benchmarks, drew mixed responses.

A critic of traditional teacher preparation and a backer of the proposed ABCTE tests applauded the ETS for venturing a national benchmark.

“This is a positive development—from being a kind of neutral vendor of a test to being a body with an opinion of what is good enough,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and an assistant U.S. secretary of education in the Reagan administration.

Mr. Finn added that he looked forward to the day when the benchmark would be incorporated into NCATE’s accreditation procedures. “Standards with no consequences don’t have a lot of traction,” he argued.

But the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers said a benchmark falls woefully short of the kind of help states need to meet the pressing problem of ensuring they have enough good teachers.

“It’s fine to propose all these national ideas, but at the end of the day, each state has to determine what best meets its needs,” given its circumstances and resources, Tom Houlihan contended. He also decried the lack of involvement of state and local policymakers in the decisions to set a new teacher-test benchmark and tie test scores to accreditation.

From different perspectives, both he and Mr. Finn said they await more convincing proof that the Praxis test screens out ineffective teachers, as does Lisa Graham Keegan, the chief executive officer of the Education Leaders Council.

Still, she, too, welcomed the concept of the groups’ setting “high and uniform” standards.

“The best news is NCATE and Praxis are responding to alternatives in the market,” such as the ABCTE, Ms. Keegan added, as they seek to assess what is takes to be a good teacher.

She said she hoped that NCATE would, given evidence of the ABCTE exam’s worthiness, set a cutoff score for that new testing program as well. Ms. Keegan said she intends to suggest that action to the accrediting body.

NES declined the opportunity to do the same, Mr. Wise said.

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