Blog: The Educated Reporter

Questions Raised on the Low Bar For Teacher Licensing Exams

A central tenet of No Child Left Behind was to ensure that every public school classroom had a highly qualified teacher. Just like their students, teachers were going to be measured by their test scores.

Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk has an important story looking at teacher licensing exams, one of the calipers for the “highly qualified” status, which raises concerns about the rigor of those tests in six states selected at random for review: California, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia. According to the publication’s analysis, the average scores of students graduating from teacher preparation programs are “often significantly” higher than the score required to be licensed in their state. One interpretation of that data, Sawchuk reports, is that the passing score is too low, and states are only concerned with weeding out the weakest test-takers.

The pass rate nationally for teacher licensing exams for students who graduated in the 2008-09 academic year was 96 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education. By comparison, Sawchuk notes, the pass rate for the California bar was 54 percent at the last administration of the exam.

A quick sidebar on lawyers. To be licensed to practice, lawyers must demonstrate a working knowledge of often archaic and obscure legal language; How often an attorney’s daily work harks back to the bar exam content depends on an attorney’s area of specialization. As for teachers, there’s fresh  criticism that state licensing exams are out of touch with the perceived “real” measures of an educator’s effectiveness. Would raising the bar for those exams translate to higher-quality instruction?

To be sure, how an individual performs on the state licensing exam isn’t necessarily a predictor of their success in the classroom. The results “don’t tell you much about the workforce as a whole,” Dan Goldhaber, a research professor at the University of Washington Bothell, told Education Week.

At a recent Education Writers Association seminar on teacher evaluations and reforms held at the University of Chicago, we talked about how classroom performance is measured both quantitatively and qualitatively. The discussion also touched on teacher preparation programs. Tim Knowles, the John Dewey director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, noted that deeming teachers to be “highly qualified” once they pass a national certification exam is a far cry from examining an individual’s actual effectiveness. While evaluations and accountability are important, they’re only parts of a larger picture, Knowles said.

In recent months the issues of how teachers are trained and how to make that training more consistent and rigorous has moved to the front burner, bolstered by President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. A new federal grant program is intended to reward high-performing teacher training programs, and to motivate states to shut down those that are flailing.

The National Council on Teacher Quality has come down hard on the issue of licensing exams, arguing on its Web site that the low bar on licensing exams offers “a free pass to teach” and that “for all the energy going into scrutinizing the effectiveness of the current teacher workforce, there is a stunning lack of attention among states to their best option for ensuring more effective teachers: setting higher expectations for what it takes to become a teacher in the first place.”

Given the large number of states where teacher licensing exam data has not been subjected to similar review, Education Week’s reporting is obviously a starting point. But it’s one that’s likely to force some tough conversations in state education departments — and teacher colleges.


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