You don’t have to take Michigan’s basic skills teacher certification exam to read this story.
But if you did, you’d probably pass.
The exam, taken before a teacher candidate begins student teaching, is supposed to assure that teacher candidates are qualified to lead Michigan classrooms. Yet the basic exam and various other tests for teaching specialties screen out almost no one, with four out of five passing on the first try.
That 79 percent initial pass rate for the various tests – 88 percent pass after retaking the tests – is a similar pass rate to license exams for cosmetology.
Should the screening of candidates to teach your children be more stringent than the licensing of hair stylists? Consider this: Your hair will grow back after a bad haircut; your child will never be in second grade again.
Michigan is failing its children by failing to offer rigorous teacher training. The problems begin in college teacher prep enrollment and continue through the often chaotic early years in a classroom. A notoriously weak link in Michigan – and one of the few links that state policymakers can control – is a certification process that fails to weed out unqualified candidates and force colleges to toughen their programs.
“It’s bizarre,” said Deborah Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education. “It is much easier to be certified a teacher than to be licensed to be plumbers, electricians, hair dressers. You basically complete a program, and you’re certified. I think it’s because we don’t value children enough.”
What’s being measured?
“Certification tests are set at a relatively low bar,” said Arthur McKee, managing director of teacher preparation studies at the National Council on Teacher Quality.
Some specific subject-area tests are difficult, such as high school chemistry certification. Some are shockingly easy. The basic skills test was required in Michigan before a college student beings student teaching. Even though the test is generally taken in a college student’s senior year, it “is set at a middle-school level,” McKee said. “It’s meant to weed out those who can barely read or write.”
Can you pass the test? Answer sample questions from the Michigan teacher basic skills test.
The basic skills test is being phased out this fall, replaced by a somewhat more academically rigorous exam. For an example of the difference, here’s a sample math question from the basic skills test that thousands of current teachers took before this year:
Which of the following is largest?
And here’s a sample math question from the new test:
A rectangle has vertices located at (0, 0), (1, 0), (1, 4), and (0, 4). The rectangle
undergoes a dilation with a scale factor of 3. What is the area of the image of the
The new tests still leave a lot to be desired, said Ball.
“It’s not the bar (exam) we’re talking about here,” Ball said. “A smart person could probably pass it before you get into the program much at all. And it doesn’t predict at all if you’re able to teach in a classroom.”
Easy tests and mediocre learning
The education received by most Michigan children is average at best. The state is 23rd in high school graduation rate and 36th in percent of adults with a college diploma. Our kids are 39th in 4th-grade math and 30th in 8th –grade reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam.
If Michigan is going to improve student learning, it likely will start with improving teacher learning. The state has little control over teacher prep programs because of university autonomy, but it completely controls the certification process, the gateway through which all education graduates must pass to get to a classroom.
The difficulty of a certification process is an indication of how much a state values a profession, says McKee. For example, the Michigan bar exam, taken by law school graduates, is one of the toughest in the nation. About 57 percent pass the Michigan bar, the fourth-lowest passage rate in the country.
Only 52 percent pass Michigan’s licensure test for building trades.
But for teachers, the state sets the bar low, even though Michigan universities produce about three times as many education graduates as needed to fill teaching openings in the state.
Cut scores were raised in 2008 to try to address the problem, but that only dropped pass rates from 93 percent to 88 percent.
Pass rates vary widely between colleges, from 59 percent at Lake Superior State University and Olivet College, to 91 percent at the University of Michigan.
Some tests are harder than others. Only a third of teachers taking the earth/space science exam passed, while 19 out of 20 music teacher candidates passed their certification test.
The most common test is also one of the easiest. More than 2,500 education graduates each year take the exam to be certified to teach elementary school; 93 percent pass on their first attempt, and 98 percent pass eventually.
“The elementary certification test was a joke,” said Kelly Compher, a second-year, second-grade teacher at North Godwin Elementary School near Grand Rapids. “You’re right that the tests don’t measure what happens in a classroom.”
Because Michigan produces many more teachers than it needs – principals often get more than 100 applications for every job – it could toughen certification standards without causing a teacher shortage, McKee said.
“There is a perception that virtually anyone can become a teacher by passing one of those tests, making teaching a relatively low-status profession,” McKee said. “If we want to raise the status of profession, we’re going to have to raise the difficulty of getting in.”
Jal Mehta, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, advocates a national bar exam for teachers. “Teaching requires a professional model, like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture and many other fields,” Mehta wrote in the New York Times. "In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed.
“By these criteria, American education is a failed profession,” Mehta wrote. “There is no widely agreed-upon knowledge base, training is brief or nonexistent, the criteria for passing licensing exams are much lower than in other fields, and there is little continuous professional guidance.”
Some states beefing up the tests
Illinois toughened its teacher certification exams in 2010. Pass rates dropped from a Michigan-like 86 percent to 39 percent. The consequence is that the latest, smaller crop of new teachers is more qualified to lead classrooms. The unintended consequence: there are even fewer minority teachers. The pass rate for African-Americans fell from 59 percent to 17 percent; Latino pass rates plummeted from 70 percent to 22 percent.
McKee calls teacher certification reform “politically fraught,” but necessary if the United States is going to compete in the education arms race.
“Wouldn’t you want teachers who were college-ready, at a minimum?” McKee asked. “That’s not where some of these tests are set.”
More rigorous teacher certification exams would "likely widen the gap" between teacher prep programs, allowing students (and their parents) to see which colleges are doing a good job preparing teachers, said Susan Dalebout, MSU's certification officer and assistant dean of the College of Education. But Dalebout argues that raising the bar at the end of college catches problems four years too late. "It's better to screen out students at the front end (during the admissions process) than at the back end (after students have invested significant time and money).
"As a general principle," Dalebout said, "the more ethical course would be to raise the bar for admission and rigor of tests taken at the end of the program."
Birmingham Seaholm High School teacher Ben Briere recalls being surprised that the certification tests were “like the ACT” – reading passages and writing responses to those passages – rather than delving into classroom management and strategies. “It didn’t touch on teacher prep,” Brier said.
That needs to change, says Ball. She envisions a multimedia exam that includes a video of the candidate teaching a lesson. “Can you get in front at a board and model to a group of eighth graders what you do to produce an introductory paragraph,” Ball said. “You lead a discussion, and you’re scored. We’re trying to build assessments of things you have to do every day as a teacher. We’re trying to change licensure dramatically.
"But if you don’t change (university) training, nobody would pass."