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September 1999


No Clear Answers on Many Complex Issues That Surround Teacher Re-certification

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"...the right answer to almost all questions about how an effective teacher should respond in a particular classroom situation is: ‘It depends’."

– 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. can’t 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 … The 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 teaching licences."

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 aren’t 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 knowledge.

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 multiple-choice tests.

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 academic ability."

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 Connecticut’s 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 teachers."

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."

Harvard’s Murnane emphatically underlines that point. " … the core issue is whether the use of multiple-choice tests in state licensing procedures increases the likelihood that our nation’s 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 depends.’

"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 profession.

To learn more about the study The Academic Quality of Prospective Teachers: The Impact of Admissions and Licensure Testing, visit .

Some Useful Web Sites

A number of states provide more information about teacher candidate testing on their web sites:













New Jersey:

New York:


Ontario teachers can also look west, where policymakers have chosen a different way to improve teaching practice and demonstrate improved accountability of the profession to the public and the provincial licensing authorities.

Alberta’s new provincial Teacher Growth, Supervision and Evaluation Policy requires each individual teacher to develop and implement an annual professional teacher growth plan.

Early in the school year, teachers are required to submit to their principal or a designated group of teachers a plan that focuses on the development of knowledge, skills and attributes that will deepen or increase their teaching repertoire and optimize students’ learning outcomes. At year’s end, teachers meet with their principal or review group to assess the professional learning they’ve gained from implementing the plan.

The Teacher Growth, Supervision and Evaluation Policy could involve more than formal courses. Researching professional literature, working on curriculum projects with colleagues, participating in professional discussion groups, observing other teachers, and mentoring or teaching skills to other teachers are all encouraged by the policy.

The Alberta Teachers’ Association web site offers growth plan development guidelines and related information.

For more information about annual teacher professional growth plans, visit the ATA web site at or Alberta Education at