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Marc F. Bernstein Headshot

Everyone Passes Teacher Certification Exams

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The federal government now requires states to formally test their teacher candidates before certification is granted to assure parents that their kids' teachers are "highly qualified" to teach. Makes sense... except almost every test-taker passes every state's teacher test.

Across the country, according to the Secretary's (of Education) Ninth Report on Teacher Quality (2013) and as reported in the May 15, 2013 issue of Education Week, the average certification-test passing score is about 15 points below the average score of all test takers. It's like getting into a club where membership is open to everyone.

In New York, for example, 97% of those taking the Elementary Assessment of Teaching Skills passed while 98% passed the Secondary Assessment and 91% passes the Mathematics Content Test. And, New York's average passing score was 16 points higher than the state-set passing score. A pretty low bar to jump, I'd say.

It makes sense to set a low bar for passing the exam to become a teacher since states need to issue a certain number of teacher licenses to guarantee that there are enough "qualified" teachers to fill all of the nation's classrooms. The alternative is that either teachers will not be considered qualified (and states will have to tell parents that "unqualified" teachers are teaching their children), though they will still be in the classroom, or some classrooms will not have a teacher. In practice, neither option is acceptable though Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, has proposed more rigorous exams for all incoming teachers, similar to bar exams for attorneys.

Unfortunately, implementing her proposal (of more rigorous tests) will produce a higher failure rate and jeopardize having enough teachers to meet classroom needs. This is exactly what happened in Massachusetts when it made its subject content tests more rigorous; first-time taker pass rates fell by 40%.

Most adults can remember having one or two great high school teachers, immediately recalling the precise names of those who made a real difference or left a strong, positive feeling... of the 25 or 30 they had during their high school years. When asked the specific qualities possessed by that great teacher, they offered: expertise in one's subject matter, the ability to present subject matter in a clear and engaging manner, an understanding of who they were as people, and a caring attitude towards their students.

Such master teachers are in extremely short supply, as are top-rated doctors, best-selling authors and physicists. This recent report tells us why so few of our teachers meet this standard; we're placing sub-standard teachers in our classes. But all of today's students deserve a really qualified teacher for all of their classes and, in this globally competitive world, must have them if they and our nation are to prosper.

The challenge is to staff our classrooms with really qualified teachers, master teachers, not those qualified in name only. Perhaps substantially raising teacher salaries will accomplish this goal. Or, perhaps the traditional instructional paradigm of one teacher for every 25 students must change.