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Teachers Tackle Testing: The Scoop on Teacher Assessment

A Harvard graduate, a Boston University graduate, and an MIT Ph.D. failed the Massachusetts new-teacher assessment test. How do you think you would do on it?

  • A registration process so cumbersome that it takes 45 minutes to complete
  • Fees ranging from $70 to $200
  • Two four-hour exams, with only a 15-minute break
  • Desks too small for the average adult's body
  • And your job depends on your performance!

Does that describe an inhumane situation too archaic to be true -- or just the latest installment in the saga of teacher assessment?

"I know students who lost jobs because of the test," said Salem State University professor Clark Fowler ("Teacher Exam Authors Put to the Test," Boston Globe, October 7, 1998).

In Massachusetts, teacher applicants are asked to write in cursive using upper- and lowercase writing; write from dictation; rewrite a 500-word essay using only 250 words; compose an original 300- to 500-word essay; read six or seven texts of approximately 400 words and answer multiple choice questions on the contents; and provide grammar and word definitions. Test takers do this for four hours, take a 15-minute break, and then take another four-hour exam. And -- surprise! -- many fail. Among those who failed were graduates from Harvard and Boston University and an MIT Ph.D.

In Massachusetts last October, 45 percent of prospective teachers failed the assessment test, slightly lower than the percentage who had failed the last two exams. Of those who retook all three parts of the exam, 92 percent flunked again.

National Evaluation Systems Incorporated, the organization that constructed the Massachusetts test, provides teacher-assessment tests to seven other states. Alabama stopped using the test after minority candidates who had failed sued successfully in 1989. Teachers in California and New York are also challenging the test.


Frequently, the greatest question in the minds of many teachers is not whether they should be assessed, but whether the test used to do so is fair.

"I don't mind testing teachers to see if they're qualified," aspiring teacher Michael Kane told Education World, "but I'd prefer it be a national not a state test. Most of my schooling is in North Carolina, and what you have to take in college there to be a teacher is completely different from what you need to be a teacher in Louisiana, so if I take a teacher-assessment test, I might not pass it. If there was only one test, there would be consistency in teacher preparation."

Currently, seven states use the National Evaluation System's tests, 27 use the National Teachers Exam, 43 ask new teachers to pass basic skills tests, and 32 require teachers to demonstrate proficiency in the subjects they teach. Teachers have not done well on those tests. Failure rates are between 20 and 30 percent on the basic skills and proficiency tests and 50 to 55 percent on the National Teachers Exam.

Do the high failure rates exist because the assessment tests are flawed, the cut-off scores are too high, or the states' teacher training requirements are different?


Those are certainly factors, but many think other issues are at play too. Rampant grade inflation in recent years has allowed poorly prepared students to graduate not just from high schools but also from colleges. As the preparation of the students entering colleges declines, college standards decline. Many believe, too, that the average student in education might not be the college average; the most highly qualified students just do not gravitate toward education.

Right now, nearly one-third of math students in South Carolina are taught by teachers who did not even minor in math. But South Carolina isn't the only state; eight states have even worse records. Additionally, because of a teacher shortage that is especially acute in science, math, foreign languages, and special education, some classroom teachers do worse than 95 percent of the nation on teacher-assessment tests. But do we really want people who score in the bottom fifth percentile teaching our children? What can be done?


Kathleen Kelly, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, suggests teacher-qualifying exams be required earlier in a students' course of study so that those who seem headed toward problems could be redirected to other fields. She would like subject matter emphasized and undergraduate classes in education eliminated. In addition, if teachers are required to earn a master's degree immediately rather than within five years as now permitted, they may be better prepared when they first enter the classroom, Kelly feels.

Stanley Z. Koplik, Massachusetts state chancellor, suggests raising the minimum SAT scores necessary for entrance to teacher-education programs from the current score of 1000 to 1100. He also proposes closing college programs in which fewer than 80 percent of the students pass the assessment tests for two consecutive years. In the most recent test in Massachusetts, only Wellesley College and Harvard met the 80 percent pass rate!

Because schools of education -- even those in excellent colleges -- are often not required to be accredited, many are quite poor. Koplik wants to close them, but if we do not have enough teachers to meet our needs, what good would closing those schools do? Who will teach our children?

Some suggest fast-tracking alternative certification for second career professionals, but others wonder, Even if the career professionals know their subjects, can they teach them?

Another option is to offer high-achieving students who want to become teachers direct financial incentives, especially those interested in teaching in areas of greatest need. Some school systems are also investigating innovative ways to retain and reward the outstanding teachers they have. They provide outstanding teachers with scholarships to cover most or all of the $2,000 application fee for National Board Certification, considered by many as the highest honor available to teachers. Besides the accolades, teachers who pass this often are offered financial remuneration. For example, one school district gives $1,000 bonuses to teachers for each year they hold the certification. Those excellent teachers can also be used to mentor new teachers, helping them achieve success in the classroom.

"Qualified teachers should be appropriately compensated," long-time Florida teacher Bev Heller told Education World. "I feel it is a national disgrace that we as a society place a greater value on garbage pickup than on the personnel entrusted with the education of our children."


Harvard professor Ron Ferguson researched data from 900 Texas school districts. Ferguson noted that the quality of the teacher (as determined by test scores, level of education, and experience) accounts for 43 percent of the difference in math scores of students in grades 3 to 5.

In North Carolina, the results of research by Robert Strauss of Carnegie-Mellon were similar. He found that for every 1 percent increase in a teacher's certification score there is a 3 percent drop in the number of students who cannot perform at their grade level in reading and math. Both researchers confirm what teachers have known for years: the single most important factor accounting for a student's high test scores is the quality of the teacher in front of the room.

Linda Darling Hammond, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future said, "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."

Many people seem to be looking for quick answers, but they are just not there. In order to improve schools, we must weed out poor teachers and attract and retain good ones. Whether the teacher-assessment tests are poorly constructed or not, whether the pass rate is too high or not, if we cannot attract a higher caliber candidate to the field of education, we will have to use the candidates we have.


  • Grading the Graders In this September 15, 1998, Online Newshour story, experts discuss pros and cons of the Massachusetts new-teacher assessment test.

  • Testing Out the New Test for Would-Be Teachers A Christian Science Monitor story about the controversy surrounding the Massachusetts new-teacher test.

  • Bad Idea Back in Bay State This NEA Today article describes problems associated with the Massachusetts new-teacher test.

  • State's Teacher Test One of Nation's Easiest This Greenville News story explains why some states accept candidates with low scores on teacher-assessment tests.

  • Less Truth Than Error? An Independent Study of the Massachusetts Teacher Tests A paper published in the February 1999 issue of the journal, Education Policy Analysis Archives. Using data from state and academic reports from the April and July test dates, an ad hoc committee of nationally-known researchers has now been able to make a preliminary assessment of the exams. The committee focused on the Communications and Literacy exam that was required of all prospective teachers regardless of grade level or subject area. The paper concludes that "scores on the Massachusetts Teacher Tests of reading and writing are highly unreliable."


  • "Massachusetts Test Aftershocks Continue," Education Week, September 9, 1998
  • "A Dunce Cap on Teachers," Boston Globe editorial, September 14, 1998
  • "Teacher Exam Authors Put to the Test," Boston Globe, October 7, 1998
  • "The 20-Point Plan: Massachusetts Unveils Teacher Improvement Agenda," National Education Goals Panel Weekly, October 21, 1998
  • "Teacher Hopefuls Again Test Poorly," Boston Globe, November 10, 1998
  • "What is the Massachusetts Teacher Exam Really Testing?" Boston Globe, December 9, 1998

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Article by Glori Chaika
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