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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Outdated spending cap keeps state from screening out less-qualified teachers

An arcane restriction in a 22-year-old state law may be at the root of Michigan’s struggles to build better teachers.

The issue involves something called a certification test fee cap, and though few educators or lawmakers are likely to have even heard of it, the spending cap hobbles the state’s ability to screen out under-qualified teachers.

Here’s how it works:

In 1992, the Michigan Legislature mandated certification tests that aspiring teachers had to pass before leading classrooms. That same legislation set the price for those tests - $50 for the initial certification exam that all teachers must pass, and $75 for subject-specific tests, such as elementary education or Spanish.

Those sticker prices have never been raised in the more than two decades since, which is a good deal for college students trying to qualify to teach, but a bad deal for the state trying to make the tests more rigorous in a bid to improve teacher quality.

Beginning last September, Bridge Magazine published a series examining the crucial role of teacher preparation in increasing learning in Michigan, where test scores show our students are falling behind students in most other states.

In that series, Bridge raised concerns about the ease of teacher certification. At the time, 82 percent of aspiring teachers passed the initial certification exam, called the Basic Skills test, on the first try. Those who failed could take it as many times as they needed to pass.

That test was stripped to its foundation and rebuilt by a committee of Michigan educators to more closely reflect the knowledge needed to be an effective teacher today. The result: the first time the tougher new test was offered, in October, pass rates dropped to 26 percent.

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan hailed the revamped test as a success, saying it showed Michigan was working to assure the state’s children would be taught by the best teachers possible.

The Michigan Department of Education now wants to revamp all the subject-area tests in the same way.

There are more than 60 certification tests for various teaching specialties, ranging from music and art to Latin and chemistry. “Right now, we do not have tests aligned for how teachers need to be prepared,” said MDE spokesperson Jan Ellis. “The reality is, funding is necessary for test alignment and development.”

Put simply: The state must spend more money if it wants a more sophisticated and rigorous test. That’s where the fee cap becomes a problem.

Michigan’s charge for teacher certification tests is lower than the fee charged in surrounding states. For example, a Michigan college student who wants to take the specialized test to be an elementary school teacher would pay a total of $125 for certification tests, compared with $159 in Illinois, $264 in Indiana and $285 in Kentucky, according to state Department of Education research.

“The legislatively mandated fee for individuals to take a teacher certification test has not changed in over twenty years,” Flanagan said in an email to Bridge. “Based on current fee limits, it will take over 11 years to fully align teacher certification tests with state education standards.”

Eleven years to remake Michigan’s teacher tests is not a time frame that makes sense for a state urgently trying to improve its K-12 schools. “We look forward to working with the Legislature to address this issue,” Flanagan said.

According to an analysis by MDE, the cost to revamp all the remaining teacher certification tests is about $3.6 million.

MDE officials have begun discussions with legislators about the issue. Options could include:

Removing the fee cap, and having a competitive bid process determine the price the state charges for certification tests. This wouldn’t cost taxpayers, but would be an additional burden to debt-ridden college seniors before they get their first paycheck.

Increasing the fee cap so the state could collect enough money to revamp the tests quickly.

Appropriating $3.6 million to pay for the development of new tests immediately. For perspective, the state just announced it has a budget surplus of more than $900 million.

“The importance of that fee cap cannot be overstated,” Joseph Martineau, deputy state superintendent for accountability, told the State Board of Education in November. “If we can have a little more resources, we can respond much more quickly than we’ve been able to.”

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