|GRADING THE GRADERS
Is teacher testing the best way to improve academic achievement?
October 1, 1998
in this forum:
Questions asked in this forum: Can the public view these tests? What is the best way to assess teachers' abilities? What is the best allocation of education funds? Who creates the tests, and are they fair?
September 15, 1998
Massachussets institutes a controversial teacher testing plan.
September 17, 1997
Online NewsHour Forum:two Senators debate national education standards.
September 8, 1997:
Are standardized tests the best route to better grades?
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Education.
The Department of Education
Robert Preece of Dallas, Texas:
Testing might allow for the additional rewarding of competent teachers on a more individual basis, and identifying weaknesses in teacher staffs which can be addressed by additional education or in appropriate cases by removal of the low performing teacher from the classroom. In view of these observations, do you think linking compensation and perhaps individual teacher development programs with competency testing is a workable approach?
B Selis of Glenoma, WA:
In our rural district, classes are small (15-25). Standards vary in the high school from teacher to teacher. Homework is minimal. We average over $6000 per student per year. Students tell me that there are days when the teacher talks about her or his own social life and discusses nothing about the subject being taught. Exchange students say our students are lazy. The Honor Roll is often 70%. Sports are top priority. More money will not change what actually goes on inside the classroom. I have substituted in the elementary level. There is also a big gap between excellent teachers and poor ones.
Joseph F. ficht of Houston, TX:
I support increased standards for teachers. I am a veteran physics teacher with 24 years experience. There is, howevewr, a shortage of qualified teachers. Obviously the best way to end this labor shortage is to increase the pay. Where will all this money come from?
Karen Symms Gallagher of Lawrence, Kansas:
In Kansas, we watched Betty Ann Bowser's Sept. 15 report on "Grading the Graders" with interest and concern. To me, it emphasized the responsibility that both liberal arts and sciences and schools of education have in preparing our teachers.
We hope you might be interested in the flip side of the coin regarding the quality of schools of education. As dean of the School of Education at the University of Kansas, I am one of two higher education representatives on the Kansas Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a body created by the state legislature. All students in the Kansas Regents system must pass a basic competency test of reading, writing and math before they can be admitted to a school of education as juniors. As graduating seniors, they take a second exam, designed to test their professional knowledge of how to teach. The passage rate of these students is in the high 90s.
The Massachusetts exam tested for basic literacy and communication skills. The test also assessed students' knowledge of their teaching subject (e.g., math, social studies, English), content that comes from courses taught in liberal arts and sciences, rather than in their professional studies in education. That doesn't excuse the fact that people couldn't pass it. But it does point out the combined responsibility of all schools in a university to prepare students to know their subjects as well as how to know how to teach.
Schools of education teach how to instruct, organize a curriculum and manage a classroom. University students preparing to be teachers learn basic subject content in discipline courses. KU's School of Education is the only one in the state with a five-year program. Students are admitted into the school after completing basic requirements in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. They graduate after two years in the School of Education and return for a fifth year of student teaching/internship and instructional courses before they receive teaching certificates. The minimum grade point average to be admitted to our school of education is 2.75, on a scale of 4.0.
Last year, our students' grade point average was much higher because there is a lot competition to get into the school. For example, the cumulative grade point average of elementary students for this year was 3.45. This GPA is based on their coursework in the liberal arts and sciences, not education. For secondary math education, grade point average was 3.24. Our ACT scores are also higher than the national average for education students. KU education students ACT scores this year averaged 24.09, compared to 20.9 nationally. Our elementary education students' average ACT score was 24.26 and for secondary math education, the ACT average was 26.5.
Studies of five-year programs indicate the teachers are better prepared, better able to manage and organize a classroom as a result of the fifth year. In addition there is less turnover once they enter the classroom. Graduates of five-year programs are still teaching in greater numbers after seven years in the classroom. Our students have an overall 75 percent employment rate immediately after completing the five-year program. If they seek positions in schools, they are hired. School districts want them because they are well prepared and because they have a track record of being effective in the classroom.
Albert E. Krahn of Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
I was rather disappointed in the comments of Dr. John Silber, the Chancellor of Boston University, and Thomas Finneran, Massachusetts House Speaker (Sep. 16, 1998), about the people who took the tests to determine their ability to teach. I was also disappointed in the interviewers of these people. First of all, the interviewers should have let us know if Silber and Finneran took the test themselves and what scores they got. Without that, their comments aren't worth a fig. Secondly, I seem to recall that one of the test questions was "What is a preposition?" This would be a question worthy of a doctoral exam in linguistics and would have no place in a test for teachers preparing for high school or elementary school. The question is decontexualized and could be answered in a variety of ways, depending upon which of a large number of grammatical systems you subscribe to. A correct and thorough answer might take hours to produce. Only a naive ignoramus would believe that the question is simple. If that was one of the questions in the test and is representative of the rest, I can understand the failure rate. The test probably stinks. I'm really curious as to what the testmakers expected for an answer. Would they have to guts to tell us?
Keith A. Green of Dunnellon, Fla:
Teachers should have to pass job performance & entrance tests! Would you want an unlicensed plumber or contractor or electrician working on your house? Why are we supposed to be happy with teachers or applicants who cannot pass an aptitude test to see whether they can qualify for the job of teaching their students. The standards for education colleges need to be reexamined & elevated. Or they should face loss of accredation! This dumbing down of America has to stop. Merit pay has to be used & the unions power deminished. Unions are to protect? not formulate policies of education. By their nature, unions restrict job performance! Hooray for Massachussetts determination.
Kent Thomas of Tecumseh, Oklahoma:
Testing the teachers does not address the basic problems, it seems to me, of lack of motivation on the part of students and families and the problem of teachers having to police the classroom and maintain order without being able to discipline students detracts from time which could be spent teaching.
Woodley of Jarrell, TX:
I believe that teachers should be given basic skills tests that cover their subject area. They should also be required to attend a specified number of hours of in-kind service and workshops, then use what they learned in the classroom.
Mitch Rodger of Pilot Hill, CA:
Teachers should be thoroughly tested. Not only should they be tested on the subject matter, but on their presentation skills. There are brilliant educators across the nation that can not convey the concepts of the material being taught. Qualified teachers should be appropriately compensated. I feel it is a national disgrace that we as a society place a greater value on having our garbage picked up, than on the personnel entrusted with the education of our children.
Barbara Berg of Santa Rosa, CA:
Teacher testing is appropriate. Testing materials and procedures could be standardized to ensure fairness. Teachers' salaries could be raised in order to draw more, and better, candidates into the field. Uniformly higher standards for teachers, and higher wages, could help the education of our children.
Michael Fain of Marietta, OH:
We need to set the highest standards for our teachers, then we must pay those who maintain those standards more. There needs to be a financial incentive for those with aptitude to pursue careers in education. If not, our best and brightest will continue to go into medicine, law, electronics/engineering, business and the military, instead of teaching.
M. Roberts of Durhamville, NY:
There is not a "single most important factor"... the truth, as with most things, involves numerous and varied factors; oversimplifying is dangerous and counterproductive. The learning environment and those elements that contribute to a successfull scenario for ALL students involves: low student to teacher ratio (ideally 10:1), a safe and secure learning environment, inclusion, making teaching a profession with decent salaries, appropriately certified teachers (not constantly being recertified/ retested"), recurring teacher training programs, deemphasizing cognitive based student "intellectual inventories" as being the best indicator of future performance, and accrediting via evaluative methodologies, student adaptive behaviors/"saavy", nurturing community involvement with the school and teaching so as to internalize within the student, the desire to learn. If we fail to execute these requirements properly, private schools will continue to set the standard. IRT the Massachusett's teacher exam; give an unannounced, albeit similar version of it to the administrators/legislators and publish the results . . . "people in glass houses!"
- B. Voras of Riverhead, NY:
Testing future teachers for knowledge of their particular field(s)of study is only one thing that is essential. The second is their ability to pass this on to children. The second can only be fostered by example.Those teachers retired with honor are the answer. To waste all the older talent is unwise. Teaching is an art, not a skill per se.
John LeLange of Grass Valley CA:
I am presently involved in taking the CBEST (California Basic Educational Skills Test) in order to fill the position of substitute teacher. The test consists of three parts which are designed to test an applicants math, reading, and writing skills. The math and reading portions each consist of 80 questions while the writing portion involves the writing of two small essays involving a topic that is provided at the time of the test. We are given four hours to complete the test. When I took the test on August 8, 1998 I completed the Math and reading portions of the test first which required about three hours. I then had an hour left to complete the writing portion of the exam. I did acceptable on the 1st essay however my second essay was rather hurried and was unacceptable. I passed the math and reading portions of the exam but failed the writing portion. The solution for me is to go back October 3, 1998 and retake the writing portion of the test. The question I would like you to ask in your investigation is *what is the CBEST test designed to accomplish. Since I will have up to 4 hours to write 2 essays I'm pretty sure anyone could do that. It certainly won't mean that I've improved my writing ability over what it was during the August exam. If proficiency in these areas doesn't involve time than why were we timed in the 1st place. The point I'm attempting to make here is in August I was given what for me was a difficult test which I failed therefore now I will be taking an easier test based on the time given.
Gaby McMillian of San Antonio, Texas:
I am a mathematics teacher in an urban San Antonio high school. Many teachers and I have already engaged in much spirited discussion regarding teacher testing. Those of us who have succeeded in this very difficult profession are always disturbed by the very high percentage of good people who "drop out" within their first three years of teaching. With the possible exception of testing teachers on their chosen content, the idea that any test can actually gauge a person's suitability to teach or that any test can predict a person's future success in the profession is ludicrous. I can assure you that all I have learned that was relevant and applicable was learned on the job and at the many teacher workshops that I attend regularly. Except to obtain a degree in one's chosen field and obtain a minimum number of credits on education theory, the university is not the place to train teachers. The only place that makes sense is on the school campus. Prospective teachers would be better trained and more likely to succeed if they were hired directly out of school and spent two years in a highly supervised apprentice program. Teaching is the only profession I can think of in which an entry level employee manages 75 to 150 people. And not only manages, but actively teaches, trains, evaluates, assesses, soothes, mothers, and disciplines, amongst other things. No multiple choice or essay test can possibly gauge a person's "people skills." I strongly believe in high standards for teachers and I, for one, am willing to match my abilities and knowledge against any assessment instrument. I strongly believe that teachers must have a strong background in their chosen field. After all, they must be able to think deeply and flexibly about the subject they teach and be able to model that thinking to their students. I just believe that universities and the testing companies should no longer be involved in determining who is suitable for our classrooms. They have no track record in producing successful teachers. No American should be content with the 40% to 50% drop out rate of teachers within their first three years on the job.
Brian Westlake of Douglasville, GA:
I have degrees in both history and sociology, and I am currently in a certification program. I am seeking initial certification is high school social studies. What I believe has been absent from much of the debate on improving education is the need to allow the teachers to spend their time teaching. Of course low pay is an issue, but I believe that many qualified people leave (or never enter) the profession because they are no longer allowed to teach. In teacher training, we are being taught to vary our teaching style to address different types of learner and to avoid the use of evalution techniques that do not force students to use higher order thinking skills (e.g. multiply choice tests). However, this type of teaching is very labor intensive, and far too many hours of a teacher's day are spent on non-instructional duties. For example, as a beginning teacher I will be expected to take on several duties and coach a sport during my first year while I am struggling to adjust to the pressures of teaching a full load of classes. Also, our so called planning periods are taken up by meetings and other bureaucratic distractions. Under these pressures, many potentially great teachers decide to look for a job outside of education, and in many cases they make twice as much once they find one. Those who stay in teaching are only able to survive by relying on time saving measures like the multiple choice exam and lecturing directly from the book. Many things need to be done to better education in this country. Better pay, more prestige, more help with discipline problems, higher standards for teacher training would all go a long way to attract higher quality candidates to the teaching profession. However, until we allow those who are qualified to spend most of their time teaching rather than attending to non-instructional distractions, we will not be able to keep them from leaving.
Todd Lucier of Windsor Ontario:
The nature of an educated person is not one who has a storehouse of knowledge that can be recalled at the moment a test calls for it. An educated person has the wherewithal to call upon the resources available to interact with their world. Teachers at their best stimulate students to go forth looking for clues, seeking information, not regurgitating information that in this age, is old by the time it gets in print. Give teachers a break.
A. Renz of Bedminster, NJ:
Consideration should given to administrating test to teacher before they enter the work as lawyers and medical doctors are by passing a board exam. Teachers should not have tenure, but work as other professionals in a free economy where they can be fired or hired according to supply and demand and also judge on the quality of their performance. This should also be true for the administrators of the schools. The pay scale should not be based on the amount of time ones has work on the job but the quality of the service they provide. It appears the whole system under which the teacher is educated and employed under needs to be organized differently. It may bring a different quality of worker and the pay may be more in line with the demands of the economy. 09/21/98 09:59:31 PM EDT ----------------------------------------- Rick Camacho of Ipswich, Mass. I do agree that teachers should be tested. But I believe that the testing should be done prior to receiving their degree. Teachers are constantly going back to be re-educated anyway. I think experience rounds out an outstanding educator, not that they can pass a test score in every subject. I don't expect a good math teacher to know every nuance of the English language, but I do expect them to communicate effectively. I think it's politics as usual. Are we saying that the last hundred years, teachers weren't really qualified to teach?
Frederick H. Bartlett of Mercerville, NJ:
My mother told me horror stories about her college of education (U Texas at Austin) from 40+ years ago. It seems things haven't changed much. Indeed, just two years ago, I found myself reviewing a lot of education literature to attempt to figure out why my daughter was doing so poorly in school. Anyone trained in any field requiring rigor would be horrified by the junk that is routinely passed off as "research" by the educational community. So why have these bogus institutions at all? Anything actually worthwhile in the way of research would be better done in departments of psychology, sociology, linguistics, or neurology. Teaching simply isn't a profession: it's a trade. And trades are best learnt not through books and college course, but through apprenticeships. So let prospective teachers learn something -- anything -- worth teaching and then serve an apprenticeship to a master teacher in order to get a license.---- MaryAnn Coravos of Dracut, MA I do feel that all our teachers should meet a high standard but this recent exam may not be a proper indicator of ability or that elusive quality that makes a great teacher "great." When I saw the poor performance on the test by students from schools like Tufts, BU, Harvard, my first reaction was that there was something flawed in the test itself. What other explanation can there be for students who were able to get into such institutions in the first place? And my other point is that being highly proficient in your field does not mean you will be a successful teacher, that you will be able to impart to your students an understanding and/or an enthusiasm for your subject and for learning. There is no test for that. I would also like to point out that I feel strongly that the poor academic performance of our public schools these past years has less to do with teacher quality or technology than with the breakdown of the family. Children need a stable home environment where education is highly regarded and supported and many of our public school students lack that. Why do students in parochial schools do so well? Because most of them come from homes with little divorce and have parents whose top priority is education. Our public education problem in America is a sociological problem more than a problem with our teachers.