Passing Michigan’s teacher tests is a breeze – and learning suffers

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?

a. ¼
b. 3/5
c. ½
d. 9/20

(Answer: b)

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

a. 4
b. 12
c. 18
d. 36

(Answer: d)

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."

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Mon, 09/30/2013 - 3:14pm
I hope this test will become tougher and also include questions related to teaching that are non-academic. I had a second grade teacher tell us that it would be unfair for a teacher to have to accelerate a student because the teachers would have to know the next year's curriculum. I was agape at the thought of a second grade teacher not knowing how to do third grade math well enough to teach it. The test should also ask about subgroups of the student population that a teacher will encounter. They should be knowledgeable about gifted, autistic, emotionally-impaired, physically-impaired, learning disabled, and other special needs children. As an advocate for gifted students, I find that one of the first things I need to do is remove the myths and misconceptions they have about this group. Why isn't this better taught in the colleges of education and tested on?
Jeff Salisbury
Mon, 09/30/2013 - 3:32pm
You'd be agape alright if you placed curriculum maps side-by-side for 2nd and 3rd grade math JR and then were asked not only to comprehend but produce lessons for each. Oh, and you might look up the proper usage of the word agape while you're at it. As for the other list you've delineated I am agape (I love this new usage. You may be onto something.) at your suggested teacher knowledge-base. That's an amazing list.
Mon, 09/30/2013 - 5:38pm
Jeff, yes, my mouth was open in amazement (agape) that a second grade teacher could not provide third grade instruction. The district's asst. superintendent for curriculum was also shocked the teacher would make such a statement as it went against district expectations. Unfortunately for teachers in my district, the district has chosen to make the classroom teacher primarily responsible for any acceleration and does not provide any supplemental gifted programming. Do you believe that teachers should not be expected to be knowledgeable regarding the types of students they will encounter? Is not meeting the academic needs of every student a primary part of teaching? If teachers do not have sufficient knowledge on 5-7% of the student population, the colleges of education have failed to adequately prepare them.
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 8:49am
"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." Umm, not necessarily. Depends entirely on what was on the exam, and how well that knowledge and those skills represent what teachers actually must know and be able to do. Getting a 36 on your ACTs does not guarantee an effective teacher, either. Personal mastery of content is not equivalent to being able to teach it to a wide range of children and make it stick. The skill set for teaching efficacy is broad and can't be easily measured; in addition, research is clear the teachers don't hit their instructional stride for a couple of years. If there's going to be a "bar exam" for teachers, it ought to come after sufficient field experience to develop those instructional chops. An internship, if you will--surpervised clinical practice--before the big exam. wanna-be teachers before investing in multiple years of training, then give them the site-based professional mentoring. Developing a bar exam for teachers would be an expensive proposition. If all it did was lop off a bigger chunk of prospective teachers it wouldn't serve either the profession or student learning.
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 11:01am
I am disappointed that The Center for Michigan believes it is necessary to bash public education, and the teachers who successfully work with Michigan's children. Yes, the previous tests were too easy. But as you noted in the article, those tests are currently being revised. Also, specific content area tests, such as Chemistry, and mathematics, are challenging. A more accurate predictor of success, should include the teacher's accumulative grade point average, in their major and minor, as well as their student teaching evaluation. The Center for Michigan, has an open invitation to visit the Rockford Pubic Schools, and observe any of our successful teachers, in the classroom, the fine arts, or on the athletic field. Thank you. Dr. Mike Shibler, superintendent of the Rockford Public Schools.
Charles Richards
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 12:32pm
Dr. Shibler asserts that Rockford Public Schools' teachers are successful, but offers no evidence in support of that contention. Does he consider inputs sufficient, or are there objective measures of his graduates' achievements that he would consider acceptable? It is apparent from his comment, "I am disappointed that The Center for Michigan believes it is necessary to bash public education, and the teachers who successfully work with Michigan’s children." that he considers Michigan's public education adequate. If that were the case, why do American graduates compare so badly compared to other nations'? Obviously, his standard of success isn't very high.
Charles Richards
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 1:04pm
Susan Dalebout shows herself to be a shrewd, capable individual when she says, "“As a general principle, the more ethical course would be to raise the bar for admission and rigor of tests taken at the end of the program.” She's obviously correct when she says, “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)." Amanda Ripley, author of "The Smartest Kids in the World, and how they got that way" in a recent interview on the Diane Rehm show said the factor that accounts for most of the variation in educational success among nations is the quality of students admitted to schools of education. Poland requires that only the top five percent of students are eligible for training as primary school teachers. Finland allows only the top ten percent of students to be trained as teachers. Mr. French says, "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." But it seems to me the state could circumvent the universities' autonomy by requiring school districts to only hire applicants who were in the top ten percent of students admitted to universities and colleges.
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 8:50am
The more ethical course would be for the colleges/universities to prepare their students so well that the certification testing would be an immaterial concern for the the schools and the students and the public. If U/M or MSU or CMU students were consistently so well prepared and proved to be the quality teachers we are all talking about then they wold all be hired ahead of all graduates from all the other colleges/universities. Since that doesn't seem to be the case it does cause me to wonder how well any of the college/unversities adminstrators or instructors are truly involved in raising the quality of Michgian teachers.
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 3:58pm
The sheer amount of misinformation and misrepresentation in this article is astounding. I cannot speak to every school with a teacher prep program, but as someone who just recently went through the entire teacher certification process I can say that all this article does is further blame teachers for problems with the system. First of all, the Basic Skills Test is exactly what it sounds like - it tests an individuals basic skills, as in can you read, write and do basic arithmetic (from the MTTC's website: "The Michigan Test for Teacher Certification (MTTC) Basic Skills test is designed to measure fundamental communication and mathematical skills:). It is not meant to test your knowledge of a subject area or your ability to teach. Because it is a test of basic skills, it should be easy to pass - if you can't read, write or complete basic math questions, how did you graduate from high school, much less get into college? The Basic Skills Test is NOT "generally taken in a college student’s senior year". I took mine during the first semester of my second year of college and it is a requirement to get into a teacher prep program, meaning that you haven't taken more than introductory level education classes before taking the test. The two things that do evaluate and weed out teacher prep students are the education courses and student teaching. As an education major in college, I can tell you that I had significantly more (and more difficult and time consuming) coursework that my friends with other majors. And student teaching is no joke. You are expected to put in 60+ hour weeks with no pay, benefits or sick days (I had surgery during my student teaching and had to be in the classroom teaching less than 24 hours later because if I missed more than 2 days I failed). I know plenty of people who either failed their student teaching, or passed, but without recommendation for certification (passing without recommendation means that the university does not tells the department of education that you are not qualified, which means you don't get a teaching certificate, even if you have a perfect 4.0 and passed your content MTTC's). Speaking of those content MTTC's, I don't know about the elementary content tests (I am certified in secondary, so took different tests), but I can tell you that the content specific tests are incredibly difficult, at least they were for me. However, no matter how difficult or not the tests are, they are only meant to test an individual’s knowledge about a specific content area, and are not a test about how effective that individual will be as a teacher. As educators, we deal with enough stigma against the profession (think of the common saying "Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach"), in addition to being overworked, underpaid and, for the most part, undervalued. Unreasonable demands are made of us frequently and we never get enough funding for materials that would help our students (ask any teacher how much of their own money they spend each year setting up their classrooms). Please do not continue and exacerbate this stigma by printing falsehoods and misrepresenting what we went through to get where we are.
Lynn Czap
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 9:04am
This was the best response that I've read so far! Much more accurate of a picture painted here--no generalizing, and depicting the intensity of our teacher education program in this state. Kudos to all our college students who 'hang in there' to finish the requirements to get their degree and begin a teaching career. This is my 39th year in education (currently retired and contracting back as district Curriculum Director). I honestly would have to say that I counsel young people to think long and hard to make sure that being an educator is their calling in life. It's not a very "friendly" environment these days.
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 4:05pm
I would hope that we would not use the new teachers accumulative grade point average, but instead one of several criteria would be their cumulative G.P.A. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Look into multiple intelligences, and maybe will find a few more answers.
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 5:36pm
Thank you Heather. Teachers have been under valued for a long time. We need to help each other along so they can survive the first few years, or help them along the way, so they don't suffer for many more years. It isn't going to get easier. I wish you all the best.
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 7:58am
The basic skills test determines entry into an education program. It is not the test that teachers must take following graduation from the program. That does not make the test unimportant, however. No test can be evaluated without the scoring system. What is necessary to pass the test - 90%? 80%? Less? That is crucial information in evaluating the usefulness of the test. Sandra
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 10:11pm
When I took the Basic Skills test (in 2008) it required a 75% to pass. It includes multiple choice in math and reading as well as an essay response. Again, I will state for the record that it is not a test meant to measure an individuals ability in terms of teaching, but " is designed to measure fundamental communication and mathematical skills" (MTTC's website).
Ron French
Thu, 10/03/2013 - 7:40am
Hi Heather, thanks for your responses to this article. You're correct that the Basic Skills test measures basic skills. It is also the first test teacher candidates must take and pass to be certified. Other tests follow. It is part of the certification process, or has been, until this fall, when the test is being replaced by more rigorous tests as is mentioned in the story. I is being replaced for the reasons stated in the story - it's too low of a bar for candidates for one of the most important jobs in the state. Other certification tests potential teachers must pass to be certified are more content-specific, but even when you add up all those tests, the average pass rate is 79 percent on the first try and 88 percent eventually after re-tests. thanks again for reading
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 9:11am
It seems that Mr. French and others fail to understand or fully appreciate certification. All certification testing does is to allow a person to demostrate a minimum level (as determine by the regualtors) of knowledge of the subject matter. It has minimal relation to the quality of performance of the individual in that field. In any profession with a certification process passing the certification test will not/cannot predict or assure how well they will do in deliverying on the expection of those they serve (this is true of doctors, plumber, lawyer, teachers). If you want to know the quality of performance you need to regualrly measure the success of those they serve. For the plumber you need to look at the work determine whether everything flows properly, if there are leaks, if the cost is competetive. For doctors and lawyers you similalry have to evaluate their results. And the key part of the measure for all those professionals would be to talk to their clients. Why should we think teachers would be any different and only have to test whether they have the technical knowledge to determine their success. Why are we talking about a system of teacher assessment that actually includes the sutdents they are teaching, and probably the least considered part is talkng to the students directly? If you don't want to measure the success of teachers, then at least start measuring the quality of success of the college/univerisities that are preparing the teachers. Measure at the begining of the process or at the end, but quit wasting time and effort on the trivial. What is more important to an elementary school student that learning an interest in learning, reading, writing, and arithmetic. How does the certification testing determine the teacher potential success for those? Teacher success as in any profession is based on knowledge, skills, and commitment. Testing only measures knowledge and not even ability to apply that knowledge.
Chuck Jordan
Thu, 10/03/2013 - 12:17am
I agree that it will help education in Michigan if there are higher standards for students who get into teacher education programs. Perhaps then, teachers would be held in higher esteem as they are in Finland. But as others have pointed out, the Basic Skills test or any one test is not going to accurately predict the success of a potential class room teacher. Students in the US do not score as well as students in other countries because we believe in democracy. We believe everyone deserves an equal education. We still have the best universities in the world with people all over the world trying to get into them. Many students are rising to the top as they always have. Too many fall by the wayside because of many reasons including poverty and immaturity. Blaming the teachers and the teacher colleges is not going to make education any better. Valuing teachers, really valuing them will make a difference. This article like so many just shows how difficult the way out/up will be.
Thu, 10/03/2013 - 6:50am
I took the test a couple of years ago and it was ridiculously easy. I showed the practice test to my 10th grade son and he could easily answer the questions. I agree that this test is NOT screening out many at all. My results were very high, I thought more would have been expected of a perspective teacher!
Sun, 10/06/2013 - 12:07pm
I believe we need high standards for teachers, but the basic skills test in Michigan is taken prior to being accepted into the school of education. I do not think it would be fair to ask a candidate to teach a lesson, etc before taking educational classes. It was mentioned in the article that cosmetologist's have more rigorous testing, but that is after being trained, not before. I wonder if most cosmetologists could accurately cut and color hair prior to entering school?
Craig Douglas
Sun, 10/06/2013 - 7:50pm
The article appeared in today's Saginaw News; why should I not be surprised? At the core, the article is full of "anti" comments that fuel an already skeptical public. I am proud to say I have been an educator in Michigan public schools for 39 years, and I am not going to run and hide from negative comments such as the ones in this article. There are many to cite; I will focus on two of the most glaring. 1) "If this were happening with doctors or airplane pilots, there'd be a revolt." Dean Deborah Ball, School of Education, University of Michigan. Really Dean Ball? A revolt? Over what? If you are the Dean, it seems you have much control over the system. And if there WERE a revolt, goodness, it would be directed at YOU, wouldn't it? (Gratefully, my training did not pass through Ann Arbor.) 2) "One of the main differences is that high - achieving countries have a higher level of difficulty for becoming a teacher." On a trip to India in 2008, one of the questions we posed to a high school student was about the public schools in India. The student responded that he attended a private school because most of the public school teachers in India had graduated from high school but had not attended college. Did this student lie to us? Or is the claim in the article invalid? Many college graduates from the United States are being hired to teach in China; why? Certainly they want English speaking teachers because English is a high priority for Chinese education. Maybe that is enough reason for them to overlook allegedly inferior teacher training here. Not! I am proud of Michigan public schools and proud of the teacher preparation systems of which I know the most about (CMU, MSU, SVSU). They are dedicated individuals, and hopefully they will hear of this article and dismiss it as I have.
Martha Toth
Tue, 10/08/2013 - 5:35pm
My comment is beside the point of the article, but I've always wondered about statements such as "Michigan ranks 36th among the states in percent of adults with a college diploma." My own two children and their spouses all left Michigan as soon as they obtained their graduate degrees because of the poor market for their skills. Do the statistics ever account for how many Michiganders have earned degrees but then departed? Since ours was the only state to lose population between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, this seems relevant. Perhaps the problem is not with our schools and universities but with our economy.
Fri, 10/11/2013 - 11:23am
Wow lets stop this right away. The Basic Skills test for Teachers is the one that you take just to get into the College of Education it has nothing to do with a teachers CERTIFICATION EXAM.
Bob Uehlein
Tue, 10/15/2013 - 3:30pm
Maybe the high pass rate is due to the Colleges and Universities doing a good job preparing teachers. The assumptions made in this article are just plain stupid.
Tue, 10/15/2013 - 6:44pm
Here's one teacher's two cents: Getting a teaching certificate should be at least as difficult as passing the Bar or Medical Boards. We are professionals, and our work is every bit as important as that of lawyers and doctors. One of the reasons we are held in such low esteem and are treated as expendable is that there are too many of us. If my district gets rid of me today, it'll have a hundred applications to choose from tomorrow, all of whom are willing to work for 27K a year. Make it tougher to be a teacher; dry up the supply and watch the respect, salaries and benefits rise.
Fri, 10/25/2013 - 11:41am
"The difficulty of a certification process is an indication of how much a state values a profession, says McKee." Highly dubious. Based on this logic and the MTTC report, Michigan's most valued teacher certifications are Earth/Space Science, Journalism, and Communication Arts (secondary). Furthermore, this article presents no information which links the MTTC to improved classroom outcomes. Without this basic premise, this entire discussion is suspect.
Stephen Ohs
Fri, 06/12/2015 - 9:57am
the biggest joke is the new online schools, paid same per student. Some 'instructors' have no teaching background. Expose that!