"...the right answer to almost all questions about
how an effective teacher should respond in a particular classroom situation is: It
Richard Murnane, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Recent calls by Premier Mike Harris for regular testing and re-certification of Ontario
teachers have education researchers in the province looking at a wide range of programs
that provide public accountability for teachers professional learning in other
provinces, the U.S., Australia and Great Britain.
Ontario educators and parents looking for answers about systematic testing of
candidates or practitioners usually look south, where teachers have considerable
experience with testing regimes. But even a recent study by the leading test provider in
the U.S. cant provide clear answers about how testing works best, or if it is the
best way to improve accountability of the profession.
Not all states have followed the testing route. Indiana has recently implemented a
program that focuses on mentoring and systematic professional learning. Utah requires
teachers to select a Professional Development Colleague as a mentor, design a professional
development plan, and over the five-year licensing cycle engage in
professional learning from a wide range of possible activities.
Here in Canada, Alberta has recently chosen to follow the required professional
learning path to increased accountability, and certified teachers in the province are now
required to develop and fulfil an annual plan for their own professional growth.
Harvard professor Richard Murnane is sceptical of the tests that are widely used in the
U.S. He believes that prospective teachers should be required to pass a test of literacy
and writing skills early in their academic careers possibly as early as high school
to ensure that children are taught by teachers who can communicate effectively with
them and their parents.
In a 1991 article, he wrote that subject-matter knowledge is necessary to teach well
and that, in principle, assessing the subject-matter knowledge of candidates for teaching
licences also makes sense.
"I have doubts, however," he says, "That the multiple-choice tests
currently used in more than 20 states validly assess subject-matter knowledge
problems of designing valid multiple-choice tests of science knowledge should warn us that
extreme caution is needed in assessing the subject-matter knowledge of candidates for
The late Albert Shanker, highly-respected former president of the American Federation
of Teachers, was a strong advocate of raising standards for U.S. teachers. He welcomed the
growing trend toward requiring testing for entry into teacher education programs.
However, in a November 1996 article in Phi Delta Kappan, he wrote, "The bad news
is that the tests do not require deep knowledge of content. One widely-used entry
examination, Praxis I (or its rival clones produced by such organizations as the National
Evaluation System), is simply a basic literacy and numeracy test that an average
10th-grader should be able to pass. While such tests ensure that illiterates arent
allowed to teach, they do not ensure quality.
"In fact, low standards of entry are apt to discourage many intellectually serious
and well-prepared students from entering teacher education programs."
Shanker called for rigorous tests in the core subject areas of English, mathematics,
science and social studies to be made prerequisites for entering teacher training in the
same way that medical schools use demanding tests of reading, mathematics, biology,
chemistry, physics and problem-solving to screen medical school applicants.
Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, New Jersey developed the Praxis I tests
criticized by Shanker, as well as the SATs that are widely used to screen university
applicants. ETS has also developed the Praxis II series of tests for subject-content
In a 1999 study for ETS, The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact of
Admissions and Licensure Testing, Drew Gitomer, Andrew Latham and Robert Ziomek described
many complex and controversial issues that surround testing.
Their comparison of more than 300,000 teacher candidates scores on Praxis tests
with SATs and grade point averages found that, contrary to many previous research claims
that U.S. teachers lack the academic ability of other college-educated professionals,
"teachers in academic subject areas have academic skills that are equal to or higher
than those of the larger college graduate population."
However, they said their study showed that if states respond to calls for higher
quality by raising the passing scores on Praxis and other tests, they will effectively
screen minority candidates out of the pool of prospective teachers. African-Americans were
most adversely affected, but Asian-Americans, who on average had higher academic scores
than other candidates, were also screened out more heavily by the Praxis battery of
The authors pointed to another troubling aspect of testing. "It is also clear, in
light of SAT scores, that assessments of the teacher pool should account for the relative
proportion of females in the sample, as women have traditionally scored less well than
males on these tests, even when other measures suggest that they have at least equal
Requiring higher scores will also shrink the overall pool of teacher candidates at a
time when teachers are in desperately short supply.
"Presumably, at least part of the reason states do not impose higher passing
scores is for fear of lessening the supply. A few states have been able to establish and
maintain high standards, however. The Connecticut Beginning Educator Support and Training
(BEST) portfolio system has been touted as an example of a rigorous performance assessment
that has helped lead to a more academically able teaching force in Connecticut
"But Connecticuts high standards do not come cheaply. The state is able to
maintain teacher supply in large part because it has by far the highest average teaching
salary in the nation $51,495 (U.S.) in 1994-95
The authors of the ETS study cautioned that, "
policymakers must walk a
tightrope with respect to teacher testing. Our data suggest that the mere act of raising
passing scores will not be a silver bullet solution for improving teacher quality. Rather
these data suggest that though testing with higher standards holds great promise for
ensuring that teachers are academically able, if not used judiciously, such testing can
also exacerbate already daunting problems with the supply and diversity of potential
But does testing produce better teachers or better teaching?
"Finally, in considering the study data, it is important to bear in mind that
Praxis tests are not designed to predict teacher effectiveness. As program entrance and
licensure tests, they measure knowledge considered essential to effective pedagogy, but do
not attempt to measure the full breadth of skills that go into being an accomplished
teacher. Therefore, passing a Praxis test does not guarantee that an individual will
become a satisfactory teacher. It does, however, warrant that the individual has acquired
a level of knowledge that is adequate for a beginning teacher."
Harvards Murnane emphatically underlines that point. "
issue is whether the use of multiple-choice tests in state licensing procedures increases
the likelihood that our nations children will be taught by effective teachers of
varying backgrounds. I question that it does, for several reasons.
"First, items assessing "general knowledge" inevitably reflect to some
extent the majority white culture
Second, multiple-choice tests of
"professional knowledge," which are part of the licensing requirements in 24
states, are not reliable measures of whether applicants possess the knowledge needed to
teach effectively, because the test items rarely provide the rich contextual information
needed to respond thoughtfully to a problem situation. These are critical limitations.
"Recent research has shown that the right answer to almost all questions about how
an effective teacher should respond in a particular classroom situation is: It
"Third, the use of the professional knowledge test of the NTE (Praxis) provides
the wrong set of incentives to applicants. Instead of learning how to teach effectively,
applicants with low scores devote attention to learning the correct answers. I
doubt that hours spent in learning to pass multiple-choice tests of professional knowledge
improve the quality of teaching."
U.S. teacher testing programs have spawned a new industry that produces web sites,
test-preparation materials and test-training programs. While teachers and teacher
candidates south of the border pore over their version of Coles notes before facing the
next round of tests, the debate over testing continues to preoccupy the U.S. teaching
To learn more about the study The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact
of Admissions and Licensure Testing, visit www.ets.org/praxis/ .