GRADING THE GRADERS
September 15, 1998
States are increasingly testing teachers to ensure their competency, but do these tests fairly measure teaching skills and improve the quality of education in the classroom? NewsHour correspondent Betty Ann Bowser looks at Massachusetts' experience with teacher testing. You can also participate in an online forum on the topic.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
An online forum on teacher testing.
May 28, 1998
President Clinton's plan to lower the teacher/student ratio.
September 18, 1997
House Republicans -- along with a number of Democrats -- voted to ban funding for national educational standards.
September 17, 1997
Online NewsHour Forum:two Senators debate national education standards.
September 8, 1997:
Are standardized tests the best route to better grades?
August 12, 1997:
Chicago Public Schools are taking a hard look at the current curriculum.
February 11, 1997:
President Clinton has announced his intentions to create national standards to measure the country's educational system.
February 10, 1997:
President Clinton's State of the Union Speech highlights his goals for education.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Education.
The Department of Education
National Commission on Teaching and America's Future
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Never before has the performance of American public school teachers been under such scrutiny.
TEACHER: -- going over more idioms today --
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In classrooms from Massachusetts to California politicians, school boards, and parents are demanding that public school teachers take proficiency tests to prove they are competent. It's happening because a number of studies have linked low student test scores to poor teaching.
Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford University knows a lot about the quality of teaching in America. She is executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a group of educators, business leaders, and legislators who did extensive research on teaching issues.
LINDA DARLING HAMMOND: Well, it turns out that the single most important factor in student achievement is the expertise of the teacher. We used to think we could teacher-proof education, that we could somehow change the curriculum, change the textbooks, change the management system, and that would fix schools. And what we've learned in research over the last couple of decades is that in fact you can't improve education without investing in teachers who know a lot.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In recent years 43 states have required new teachers to pass a basic skills test. 32 other states now require teachers to take tests demonstrating proficiency in the subjects they teach. And when teachers have taken these tests, they haven't done all that well. In some states failure rates have been between 20 and 30 percent.
Fifty-nine percent of Massachusetts teachers fail their proficiency tests.
But no one was prepared for what happened in Massachusetts this spring when all new teachers had to take proficiency tests for the first time. An unprecedented 59 percent -- all college graduates -- failed to make the grade. Danielle Pelletier flunked the test not once but twice -- and that had serious repercussions.
DANIELLE PELLETIER, Prospective Teacher: I went on an interview, the school seemed to be interested in me, in what I had to offer and waited for my results to come back for the test and when they did come back, the job was no longer mine.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: College graduate Meghn Bond flunked the literacy test.
MEGHN BOND, Prospective Teacher: I can't speak for everyone but I'm going for elementary. My goal is to teach the third grade. And they're just starting cursive, and they're just starting to form their paragraphs, and I can do that. But that's not what they're scoring us on here. They're scoring us on as far as high school. And I'm not teaching high school.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: That kind of comment threw Massachusetts speaker of the house Thomas Finneran into a rage; he publicly called people like Bond "idiots."
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Did you mean that?
THOMAS FINNERAN: I do stand by it. I got chills up and down my spine because it was described to me quite accurately as a test that a reasonably educated 9th grader could pass. These applicants were college graduates. That is appalling in and of itself that they made it through college.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The high failure rate became the subject of newspaper editorials -- one said the test results were an "utterly abysmal performance." State officials were humiliated. Not only is Massachusetts currently involved in a massive education reform effort, it's also an election year. Reaction from the state's acting governor Paul Cellucci was swift. Cellucci -- who's running for governor in his own right in November -- introduced a bill 11 days before the end of the legislative session that would require not just new teachers but all teachers to be tested.
GOV. PAUL CELLUCCI: My bill will ensure that the most important resource in our classrooms, our teachers, are capable of bringing out the best in our children.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Critics accused the governor of election year pandering because the bill had virtually no support on the joint education committee.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: If this was not an election year, would you have introduced that bill eleven days –
GOV. PAUL CELLUCCI: Sure.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: -- before the end of the session, knowing it had very little chance of passing?
GOV. PAUL CELLUCCI: I would have introduced the bill based upon the 59 percent failure rate whether it happened in an election year or any other year. I'm not doing this for political reasons. I'm doing it because I think its the right thing to do for students.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Cellucci's bill was dead on arrival. Still, all the criticism from the politicians has left experienced teachers like Joy Oliver bitter.
JOY OLIVER: I think that this test in the whole process has just been used as a way to bash teachers. And I find it very, it hurts. From talking to my friends who are teachers and other professionals, they don't understand why they're being treated this way. I don't think that the people who are doing all of the talking, the politicians really have any idea what it means to be a teacher. And yes, you certainly have to reach a standard of academic competence, of academic excellence -- absolutely. But also there are skills that just cannot be tested.
Were the teacher proficiency tests fair?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some of the fallout from the test results revolved around the test itself. The board of education has refused to release the actual questions on the tests but did give examples of the kind of questions asked. One sample question was: “Define the word ‘abolish'”. Another asked: "What is a preposition?" But according to those who have taken the tests, there were other more difficult questions. Teaching commission chairman Linda Darling Hammond says the tests were too hard and passing grades were raised too high.
LINDA DARLING HAMMOND: They're really not minimum competency tests. If you've seen the tests, they're really at a pretty complex level and among the folks who have so called "flunked" the tests are graduates of very fine institutions like Harvard, and Boston University. The test is so much more difficult than any others that states are using and the cut off score was set so high, it's very hard to know what it means.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Dr. John Silber is the chancellor of Boston University and chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education that approved the use of the tests.
DR. JOHN SILBER: I'm quite satisfied that with the easy standard we set for passing, which required students to get only about 70 percent of the items correct, or 75 percent correct, which is roughly a C performance, that standard was set so low that I don't see what basis there would be for complaining about the fairness of the test.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ron Hambleton is a methodologist and nationally recognized expert on teacher testing.
RON HAMBLETON: I think that the people who feel that this test is easy really ought to sit down and take it under test-like conditions. I think they'd be surprised at how difficult the test was. But that's an empirical question. And there are some predictions that tenth graders would be able to pass this test. I don't believe that for a second.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The proficiency tests were given again in July at a local community college. All over the state professors in schools of education like Clark Fowler watched closely. When the results were in, Fowler termed them wildly unreliable.
CLARK FOWLER: 750 people who failed in April took the test again in July and 57 percent of those who failed reading the first time passed it. 52 percent of those who failed writing the first time passed it on the second time. Now we were told these people were idiots. We were told they couldn't read and couldn't write. But over half of them can now read and write. So either the test is fatally flawed or some kind of miracle happened.
Are schools of education failing to produce quality teachers?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Fowler's own Salem state students did poorly. Only 33 percent passed the first time, 41 percent in July. Board of Education Chairman Silber says that's because schools of education like Salem State aren't doing a good job.
JOHN SILBER: Schools of education have dropped their standards to negligible, risible proportions and they give grade inflation and they graduate without competence, and everybody knows that the average student in a school of education is below average. That is a safe generalization. There are very few schools of education in which the average combined SAT score of their incoming freshman exceeds the national average. Most of them fall about 50 points below the national average.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Again, Darling Hammond of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future.
LINDA DARLING HAMMOND: There are, in fact, probably 200 schools of education that have been really radically redesigning their programs in the last 10 years; at the same time we do not require schools of education to be accredited; we do not require all of them to meet standards; and some of them are really quite poor.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Diane Lapkin is dean of the Schools of Human Services at Salem State, which includes the department of education.
DIANE LAPKIN: The first and foremost and most important thing that goes through my mind is what can we do to fix this? How can we make it better. It's a wake up call. It's a chance to do things better, to improve. If our students do not know the basic skills, if they need help in grammar, if they need to write better, if they need to think more critically, then we as a school of education must respond absolutely to that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Silber has put schools of education on notice -- even his own school of education at Boston University where 33 percent of graduates failed the test in April and 25 a percent in July.
JOHN SILBER: If our school of education can't reach a standard where no more than 10 percent of the people who take that test fail, we'll shut it down. We'll recommend to the trustees just to close the school. I think this is our obligation to offer a first rate education and to insist on high standards or get out of the business
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The state of Massachusetts may soon require that all schools of education in the state produce graduates -- 80 percent of whom can pass the proficiency tests -- or as Silber threatens -- face being closed down.