New Tests, Old Results

ThinkStockThe Foundations of Reading test, now required for teacher licensure in Connecticut and Massachusetts, does not ensure that prospective teachers will have the knowledge or skills required to be effective teachers of literacy. In fact, the nature of this and other content-specific licensure tests may actually ensure something else altogether.

Our recent analyses showed that program rankings based on the Foundations of Reading test in Connecticut, where the test is a newer requirement and still generates a less than perfect pass rate, are roughly the same as they would be if the programs were simply ranked by their school’s average SAT scores. This test serves to generate the same kind of academic gap among teacher candidates that we are trying to close in K-12 schools. This might be seen as ironic, but predictable, and we urge the Connecticut Department of Education and other education officials to end it.

The Foundations of Reading test does not work as a gatekeeping device, ensuring that the best teacher candidates enter the field. It does, however, generate a profit. Both non- and for-profit entities have capitalized on the growing market for test preparation by developing and marketing evening and weekend courses and practice materials, some with $300-$400 price tags. Those who can afford these programs are taught not just the essential aspects of the Foundations of Reading test, but also the general test-taking skills that provide an advantage compared to those who can’t participate.

The very existence of test-prep programs suggests that what is tested on this test can be successfully taught in a series of short workshops, rather than a traditional teacher preparation program. In fact, some Massachusetts teacher preparation programs require candidates to pass licensure tests before enrolling as a way to ensure high pass rates. These entry requirements assume that expertise needed to pass can be taught in a brief workshop. Although we agree that there is an urgent need to ensure elementary teachers are well prepared to teach reading, we suggest that adding on one more licensure test may end up doing more to keep quality candidates out of classrooms than it does to ensure qualified candidates come in.

Unnecessary testing can be dangerous and carries consequences. One of the consequences is teacher sorting by socioeconomic levels because of the cost of tests and test prep workshops. In order to qualify for initial elementary certification, teacher candidates in Connecticut may have to take a total of seven Praxis Series tests, plus the Foundations of Reading test, priced at $80-$150 per test.  Students can buy their way to more supportive testing conditions (pay extra to take multiple tests on multiple days) and formats (pay extra to take the test online). Those students with already-developed test-taking skills, confidence in their test-taking ability, and access to programs that pass up costly test preparation workshops to focus on innovative teacher preparation get the benefit of better preparation.

Those who must opt for less ideal testing conditions may enter the testing environment with greater anxiety and are likely to have lower scores. These low scores reflect poorly on certain teacher preparation programs, thus continuing the cycle of modifying coursework to add test preparation in some programs, while other programs “don’t have to worry.”

This creates a second track of teacher education in which the very schools that prepare students who do not traditionally do well on standardized tests (minority students and/or students from lower socio-economic backgrounds) become subject to a cycle of imperatives to spend time on test preparation and less on quality instruction.  This is especially disheartening considering that the test itself has no empirical link to the achievement of a test-taker’s future students.

Let’s remember: Teacher candidates are students themselves – some of whom may be in their last years of an educational experience that may have been unequal from the start. If policymakers are interested in improving the quality of teacher preparation programs, they must move to invest in program improvements, rather than program measurements that do not provide valuable information.

There is no shortage of ideas of how we should invest in, and improve, pathways to teacher preparation. From recruiting a more diverse student body, to ensuring practical experiences throughout teacher training, well-tested ideas abound. Adding assessments that reify patterns of achievement that are linked to wealth and previous educational opportunities seems to be a step backward, rather than a step toward a better prepared teaching force.

Jessica Nina Lester and Chad Lochmiller were co-authors with Dr. Gabriel on this article.