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Michigan’s future teachers flunking test of ‘basic’ content

Less than a third of aspiring teachers passed Michigan’s tough new certification test during the first year the exam was required, with universities and the state Michigan Department of Education pointing fingers at each other over the abysmal results.

Pass rates for the Professional Readiness Exam (PRE), which must be passed before aspiring teachers begin student teaching, vary from a high of 71 percent passing at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor to 16 percent at Alma College, according to a report provided to Bridge by the state education department. The report includes tests taken between October 2013 when the new test was first introduced, and July 2014.

Fewer than one in four aspiring teachers passed the test at 12 of the 27 public and private Michigan colleges and universities for which scores were provided. Aside from U-M, Michigan Tech (55 percent) was the only other school with a passage rate above 50 percent. (The test is only required for those still studying to be teachers; current teachers do not have to take the test to remain in the classroom)

That’s a stunning difference from two years ago, when the pass rate under the old exam, called the Basic Skills test, was 82 percent statewide.

The new certification test is part of an effort to assure that only the most highly-qualified college students seeking a career in teaching are leading Michigan classrooms. The test now includes higher-level math and reading questions and a tougher writing subtest.

Compare the two tests and see if you can answer sample questions

Here is a sample of the old, less difficult certification questions

Here is a sample of the more rigorous math and reading questions in the new exam:

Calls for more rigorous teaching standards have intensified as Michigan students continue to fall further behind students in many other states, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, sometimes referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. While many factors play a role in Michigan’s education slide, one factor had been the state’s notoriously easy certification tests, where pass rates were similar to the pass rates for cosmetology.

MDE is revamping its battery of teacher certification tests (in addition to PRE, aspiring teachers also take content-specific tests for subjects ranging from elementary education to chemistry) so they better align with what is being taught in classrooms. Reporting by Bridge led to the department receiving additional funding to speed up the test-revamp process.

Rigorous? Or just confusing?

There’s a heated debate over whether the PRE is raising the bar on teacher candidates, or just confusing college students.

“We have a bad test,” said Nancy Brown, associate dean of the School of Education and Human Services at Oakland University, where fewer than one-third of students passed the test. “We’re not going to know the best and brightest (future teachers) from this test because the test is broken.”

At Oakland, aspiring teachers typically are expected to pass the test before entering the teaching program.

“We had a bunch of people who were expecting to start the program,” said Robert Wiggins, chair of the Department of Teacher Development and Educational Studies at Oakland. “We gave them a petition of exemption (allowing the students to begin the teaching program). We said you will have to pass the test eventually; it’s very different from what we had in the past.”

Even with the university offering test prep programs, only 29 percent of the 226 aspiring teachers at Oakland passed the PRE last year.

“Students are stressed out and frustrated,” Wiggins said. “Most of the students who get to this point have a history of success in school. We’ve held workshops on each of the subjects (reading, math and writing) and students have taken (the exam) repeatedly. We have this public perception that this is a readiness exam that measures minimal standards, when in reality, it’s a very difficult test.”

High school content

The Michigan Department of Education acknowledges that some university teacher preparation programs are unhappy with the test. But the department says the problem lies with aspiring teachers, too many of whom don’t have the level of general academic knowledge needed to become successful teachers.

“This is high school content,” said Leah Breen, interim director of the Office of Professional Preparation Services at MDE. “It’s staggering to see the number of college students who want to enter the teaching profession who do not have (high school) content.”

The PRE doesn’t measure teaching skills – additional certification tests taken at the conclusion of a college teaching program in specific content areas are meant to do that. Instead, the PRE is intended to set a bar for general academic knowledge, Breen said.

“It’s intended to assure that a candidate entering a (teaching) program has the basic knowledge to learn the skills necessary to be an effective teacher,” Breen said. “We don’t want them to be relearning high school content in their teacher preparation program.”

The scores needed to pass the Professional Readiness Exam’s three sections are comparable to above-average high school ACT scores. The score needed to pass the math and reading sections of the PRE is equivalent to a score of 22 on the math section of the ACT, which is the 61st percentile of high school test-takers nationally; the writing section of the PRE is equivalent to a score of 24 on the ACT’s combined English and writing subsections, which is the 75th percentile nationally.

Michigan doesn’t have to worry about the PRE causing a teacher shortage anytime soon. Michigan graduates more teachers than the schools have openings, and the Department of Education now offers alternative methods of passing the PRE that are boosting the share of Michigan college students passing the first hurdle toward becoming a teacher. Students with equivalent ACT scores can skip the PRE; students who pass two PRE sections and come close to passing the third (within one standard measure of error) also can move on.

At Michigan State University, for example, 41 percent of aspiring teachers passed the PRE, but when alternative pass methods are included, 73 percent of students passed the hurdle. At Oakland, the pass rate increases from 29 percent to about 45 percent when alternative pass methods are included.

That’s still significantly less than the eight out of 10 who annually passed the old Basic Skills Test. That’s a good thing, Michigan Superintendent Mike Flanagan said in late 2013 when the first round of PRE results was announced.

“Just like we’d want the best and most effective doctor,” he said, “the same applies to teaching Michigan’s students.”

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