Friday, August 11, 2006

Testing Teachers

Linda Chavez is usually right on the money when she writes about education matters. However, she repeats one canard that I'm not sure applies here in California:

And it's no wonder that teachers have a rough time when they're the ones being tested. A recent study by the American Institutes for Research showed that education majors had the lowest levels of practical literacy among college students. When asked to evaluate the arguments in a newspaper opinion article, such as this one, or summarize the results of an opinion survey, or compare credit card offers with different interest rates and fees, education majors scored at the bottom of the class. Education majors also have among the lowest SAT scores and do poorly on other measures of verbal and mathematical ability.

I've been hearing about teachers' low SAT scores since I was in high school. Does a recent study exist to show this--and by recent I mean one conducted in, oh, say the last 10 years. But that isn't my real bone to pick with her statement; rather, her statement might not apply to California because California hasn't offered bachelor's degrees in education in decades.

Granted, many or our elementary teachers may major in liberal studies, which no doubt are "liberal" in more ways than one. The idea there is to give a teacher a broad base of general knowledge, since elementary teachers teach several different subjects. Middle and high school teachers generally have a major, or at least a minor, in their subject area. Education/pedagogy classes
are taken during a "5th year" of schooling after receipt of the bachelor's degree.

So comments like Chavez' above need a little clarification here in California. Are our teachers as stupid as everyone else's? Maybe, maybe not. But let's be accurate when throwing stones.

Here's more from her article:

It shouldn't be a surprise that teachers aren't measuring up. Teacher certification in most states has been a joke for years. In the District of Columbia, for example, teachers can be certified by scoring barely above the 20th percentile on the Praxis test, an exam used by 29 states to test who is fit to teach. The other states aren't much better, granting certification to teachers so long as they score above the bottom third of all test takers.

Yet the National Education Association, the largest union in the nation, has fought tougher standards all the way. Even the smaller American Federation of Teachers, which is usually a more sensible voice on education reform matters, has resisted re-testing veteran teachers so long as they've already met the abysmally low state certification requirements.

I'll agree that teacher certification is a joke. Certification, the hoops you have to jump through to get a teaching certificate, is entirely different from having "subject matter competence". Allow me to tell a brief tale of my own experience.

I went through an alternative credentialing program. It had some distant relationship with CSU Sacramento, but it was not conducted through the university. Because it was a 2-year internship program, I taught for two years while getting paid. Had I gone to a state school, I'd have had to attend school for a year and do part-time student teaching for no pay--as a single parent, my choice of programs was fairly obvious.

As I said, though, credentialing and subject matter competence are two different things; my credentialing program was all about pedagogy and the like and nothing about math. To prove to the state that I had some math competence, there were two possibilities:
1. either a UC or CSU school could bless my transcript from West Point, which would automatically grant me competence, or
2. I could take three tests--2 Praxis math tests and a single-subject (math) multiple guess test.

Had I gone to school here in California it would have been no trouble to get my home school to bless my transcript--after all, that school would have awarded me my math degree! They certainly wouldn't admit that it didn't give me enough knowledge to teach high school, so I would have had instant competence by virtue of having attended a school here in California. Seems a bit silly to me.

But I didn't go to school here in California. I called the math department at UC Davis, the nearest UC campus to my home, and they wouldn't even look at my transcript. If I didn't go to a UC school, they didn't want to hear from me. I got someone at CSU Sacramento to agree to look over my transcript, but he decided that my B.S. degree in applied math wasn't good enough--I'd need to take four, later cut down to three, additional math courses at CSUS in order to be considered competent.

I took the tests and passed. I didn't think the tests were all that easy or that California had set the passing bar too low, and I was well above the passing bar.

Back to Chavez' article. I'm not surprised that the teachers unions would resist teacher testing, are you? But why, Linda, would you think I need repeated testing over the years? That sounds to me like nothing more than a waste of money, and I don't see why I should waste my money on tests every few years. To be honest, I resent having to spend $70 or whatever it is every 5 years to renew my credential when that renewal shows I've done nothing more than teach for at least 6 months and have had 150 hours of professional development. Do you think I'm going to forget the math that I'm currently teaching? Why, exactly, should I be retested? It's one thing to be anti-teacher or anti-union, it's another not to make any sense with your point. I don't think Linda justifies why teachers should need continued subject matter testing throughout their careers. It's not like Algebra 2 is changing at all.

She does end by making sense, though. You often hear teachers talk about how it's just as important for a teacher to be able to convey knowledge as it is to have knowledge. That's true--teachers need both. One without the other is useless to students. Liping Ma, in Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics, showed the importance of what she called "profound understanding of fundamental mathematics", something lacking in the American elementary teachers in her study. Put simply, you can't teach what you don't know. Chavez says:

How can we expect elementary and secondary students to improve their achievement when the men and women who teach them are so ill-prepared to impart the necessary skills? Much of the emphasis in NCLB -- and the criticism it has generated -- has been focused on the required testing of students. But it's hard to imagine how students can perform better unless we ensure that teachers know the subject matter in the first place.

It's true. But repeated testing of teachers, who unlike their students are not learning new material continuously, isn't the way to go. The correct solution is to ensure that certification/competence test scores are high enough to be meaningful, high enough to ensure that the teacher does have subject matter knowledge from the very beginning. That doesn't seem too unreasonable, does it?


Coach Brown said...

I think that subject matter degrees from accredited colleges should be fine in terms of teachers knowing their stuff. I don't think it should be necessary for me to have comparable knowledge in, let's say, Algebra, if I'm not going to teach it. In fact, regarding Algebra......oh, never mind. I almost forgot who I was talking to :)
I also think that schools should add incentives for teachers to get Master's Degrees in their subject matter. This National Certification for Teachers is crap, and the schools shouldn't allow those prissy "education masters" from the University of Nowhereland, but focus on straight subject matter.

Ellen K said...

I think the low SAT's can be linked directly to the increased incidents of sexual malfeasance. I mean, really,you have to be stupid to think that you would get away with some of the stuff that these idiots pull. Email, stuff with students, harassment, how stupid can these people be when they KNOW their computers are being monitored and that email is considered public property and not protected by privacy laws if it is from a school computer. I work with some very bright young teachers, but I have to admit there have been a few that I am surprised they got out of high school, much less college. Like the drill team instructor my daughter had who would send out pages of information with spelling errors in every paragraph. And she was supposedly an English major.

Anonymous said...

On the flip side, I work with people who I know could pass a subject area competency test, but who have absolutely zero rapport with their students and cannot convey their knowledge to others well. That's the thing about teaching--it's multi-faceted. A good teacher should know the curriculum, should be comfortable as a public speaker, should be socially adept, should be able to think quickly as there are always wrenches thrown in and circumstances outside of your control (fire drills, kid vomits in class, overhead light burns out and there isn't a replacement, etc.), should be humble-- if the way you are choosing to teach something is falling flat on its face then admit it and try a different approach, and finally, you cannot take yourself too seriously and get along okay with middle schoolers!

ateacheratlarge said...

Where I went to college we had to get at least a 2.75 in order to begin the student teaching portion of the education curriculum. Of course without that we could not gain certification. This is more than fair. I went to a top tier school and found that as long as I cared about my classes and gave an effort I could do pretty well. I have a very solid base of knowledge in many subjects and can more than adequately teach my third graders.
The praxis was not so difficult. The most difficult part for me was rewriting in cursive the promise not to give test information to others.
The WEST-B test given for Washington state certification was a joke. It seemed to me that any homeless person could pass that test for certification. If anybody fails such, they should not be allowed to retake it for one year.

Darren said...


The Praxis tests for math weren't simple.

California has the CBEST, which every substitute and teacher must pass. I think you have to pass the CBEST before getting into an ed school but I don't know for sure.

I was a last-minute, emergency-credential hire for my first job. That meant I had a bachelor's degree and a pulse. I hadn't even passed the CBEST yet, but the people in the district office told me to sign up for the October test: "By the time anyone at the county figures out you haven't taken it, you'll already have taken it and passed it." I was teaching 8th graders in the days before our current standards, and the test covered much of what I had taught my 8th graders during the first two months of school. Pretty scary that the bar is that low.

Yet people fail it all the time. You can take it as often as you want or need to until you pass the 3 sections--reading, writing, and math. I, too, believe that *any*one who can't pass all three, AT ONCE, should have to wait a year before they're allowed to take the test again.

Remember, CBEST is merely the test to get *into* teaching. To get credentialed, secondary teachers must demonstrate their subject matter competence through testing or blessing and elementary teachers--well, I know they have a test they can take, and I'm sure there's a system for blessing *their* transcripts, too, but I don't know what it is.

And anonymous, I agree with you. Recall what I said in the post:

"You often hear teachers talk about how it's just as important for a teacher to be able to convey knowledge as it is to have knowledge. That's true--teachers need both. One without the other is useless to students."

La Maestra said...

I completely agree with you on all counts. I wasn't an education major either--I majored in my subject matter. However, a number of teachers at my school didn't. For example, none of our math or science teachers actually majored in the subject they teach, but most of them majored in similar subjects. One majored in mechanical engineering at a top university, then worked as an engineer, yet in order to become certified in math and physics, he had to spend his own time and money taking basic math classes as well as the Praxis to prove that he understood the concepts he'd be teaching.

However, I do want to clarify on one point. When I received my degree (from a California public university) in my subject area, I was not "automatically blessed". There were specific content-area classes I had to take to meet my subject-matter competency, that not necessarily all graduates of my major would have taken. I was proactive and learned what those classes were early-on so that I could integrate them with my major requirements, double-counting classes not only toward my major, but also toward my credential. This enabled me to finish college and my credential in less than five years. However, most people I knew didn't do this because they were not proactive about finding what they needed to meet the competency--they waited until fall of their senior year when they were applying for the credential program, only to discover they hadn't met all of the subject matter requirements despite majoring in their desired subject area.

Darren said...

Thank you for clarifying how one gets blessed with subject matter competency!

Andrew Pass said...

Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs that exists. Teachers must know their content matter, know their students well, have the ability to interact with large groups of students at a suingel time and competently support students as they engage with important concepts, learning new knowledge and skills. I don't think that anybody could possibly understand how difficult it is to teach if they've never taught. I simply don't think that somebody can be a great teacher unless they are both very knowledgeable and very smart. Unfortunately, most people don't share these two characteristics.

Andrew Pass

Dr. P. said...

The most complete summary of teacher performance on the SAT is a 1999 study by Gitomer at ETS. The key findings are discussed in "Measuring the Teacher Quality Problem" which can be found here. As this article points out, lumping all teachers together distorts the picture. Physical ed, special ed, and elementary ed teachers drag down the averages. Secondary school teachers do perform at about the average for all college graduates. Math teachers, for example, have an average of just under 600 on the math portion of the SAT compared to a 479 for the all inclusive education major.

The cut-scores on Praxis exams are pretty low. For details in math see my post. I would agree that teachers who scored high (above 180) don't need to be retested, but if I'm in Arkansas and I hired someone who scored in the 120's I sure would like to know if they are improving their skills with time.

Darren said...

I decided to find my Praxis paperwork and see what the situation was in California in 1998, when I took the tests.

At that time, in addition to a multiple choice test, we math teachers had to take two Praxis tests. Here's the information from my grade report.

Test #0063 Math: Proofs, Models, Problems, Part 1. Score range: 100-200. California required minimum score: 165. My score: 186.

Test #0064 Math: Proofs, Models, Problems, Part 2. Score range: 100-200. California required minimum score: 152. My score: 200.

Those required scores don't sound exceptionally low, especially when given the tremendous range of topics that could have been on the tests.

And I'm not ashamed of my scores, either.

Darren said...

Oh, and my SAT scores from 1982-1983 were well above 600 in math. :-)

But not quite 800. :(

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure I looked at that same credentialing program in 1999-2000. CSU didn't think my chemical/biomedical engineering double major would cut it for teaching high school math.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, teacher testing. I took my undergraduate degree during the heyday of the National Teacher's Exam. Remember that one? Change the face of education? Absolute accountability? Standards so high you'd get a nosebleed just reading the test results?

I passed the entire thing, but received a higher score in math than English by a pretty large margin. This is where the bizarre part/punchline comes in.

I was, you see, born without the math gene. I can balance a checkbook and do all manner of basic computation, but when an equation trundles into view, I do not gain immediate and transcendental insight into the beauty, nature and majesty of the universe. I aced my mandatory college math courses, but that was due entirely to general scholarly ability and practice and not at all to an innate understanding of the concepts.

Considering that I am an English teacher who has been fortunate to enjoy some degree of success, I was amazed at the result. There were two possibilities: I had a hidden genius for math, or, there was something seriously wrong with the test.

Well. That test had nothing whatever meaningful to say about my abilities and talents. I suspect that was true for many of the unfortunates who were forced to endure it. And so it goes...

Darren said...

Don't feel bad. My degree in Applied Freakin' Mathematics (with enough engineering to get a minor in general engineering in any civilian college) wasn't considered enough by the High Poobah at Sac State.

I did ok on the tests, though (see above), so I was only out a few hundred dollars and a few hours of time.

Darren said...

Mike, thanks for a *great* story!

Oddly enough, on the CBEST test I scored higher on the written and verbal parts of the test than the math! Then again, I only took a few minutes on the math, but still!

"Ms. Cornelius" said...

I think school districts and state DOEs contribute to the problem. They want people with vague education degrees bewcause they are more versatile-- they are "able" to teach more subjects. They have more credits in education classes than in subject matter.

My school district supports this trend. They have no teachers at the elementary or high school level with subject area degrees, and prefer middle school teachers with "middle school certification," which ensures that the teacher has mastered no content area subject matter. They will pay most of the tuition for a master's degree in education, but they paid NOT ONE NICKEL for classes I took for a master's in history, which required far more rigorous coursework than the other route. Then they wonder why they can't offer college credit courses at the high school, which requires a teacher with a master's degree in the subject matter.

Darren said...

Not even *secondary* teachers have majors in the subject area? And the district likes it that way? That's insane!