Will A “Bar” Exam for Teachers Improve Student Performance?


A growing nationwide push for more rigorous teacher-licensing standards sweeping state houses from New York to Washington has reformers on sometimes opposing political sides looking at what was once considered nearly unthinkable: a bar-like exam for educators.

Even the American Federation of Teachers, the powerful union, has taken the old adage that the best defense is a good offense and begun to campaign for such exams as teachers are increasingly blamed for low student achievement. The AFT has also been campaigning for higher standards both for prospective teachers and for teacher-preparation programs.

In so doing, the AFT has found common cause with a number of education reformers with whom it normally doesn’t agree. A new AFT report, “Raising the Bar: Aligning and Elevating Teacher Preparation and the Teaching Profession” has won praise from many quarters, including Arne Duncan. And Joel Klein, the former New York City Schools Chancellor who now heads News Corp.’s education business, floated a similar proposal last November.

New York is among the states  moving toward tougher requirements for entry into teacher-preparation programs — currently, New York has no such minimum requirements — as well as a bar-like exam for graduates. After a panel that he created said it concurred with the AFT’s report recommending a bar-like exam, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said in his State of the State address on Wednesday that “every teacher” should take such a test and pass it “before we put them in a classroom.”

The New NY Education Reform Commission, convened by Cuomo in April 2012, recommended in a preliminary report that prospective teachers have a minimum 3.0 GPA, as well as an assessment, such as the GRE for graduate programs, or the SAT/ACT for undergraduate programs, but, notably, doesn’t specify a minimum score that candidates must achieve. The report, which points out that the state’s current certification exam has a 99 percent pass rate, also calls for “adopting a ‘bar’ like exam that will test new teachers on how well they are prepared to lead classroom instruction.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the AFT and a member of Cuomo’s education commission, said the world’s most lauded education programs in countries like Singapore and Finland also have teacher-education programs with high degrees of quality control.

“Preparation really matters,” she says. “We talk a good game in this country about the importance of teachers, but no place in this chain do we actually treat it as important.”

The AFT report is largely a critique of the nation’s teacher-education system — a hodge-podge of traditional university based education programs, alternative certifications, and online programs—that the report says is “at best confusing and at worst a fragmented and bureaucratic tangle.” The AFT says it wants to develop national consensus on a “mechanism for ensuring high standards,” in large part by improving the connection between teacher-preparation programs and on-the-ground teaching.     

The bar-exam proposal coincides with two competing trends in K-12 education: on the one hand, the proliferation of alternative certifications that aim to attract young people from elite schools and are generally much shorter — and, critics say, more superficial — than many university based programs; and, on the other hand, a growing call for educational rigor in both teacher preparation and licensure requirements.

The proposal also follows a devastating 2006 critique, Educating School Teachers by Arthur Levine, the former president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, which took aim at both alternative certifications for doing away with “quality ceilings and floors” and the majority of traditional university based programs, which are “characterized by curricular confusion, a faculty disconnected from practice, low admission and graduation standards…and weak quality control enforcement.”

At the same time, an influential 2007 McKinsey  & Co. report, which claimed that the nation recruits many of its teachers from the bottom third of college graduating classes, unsettled education policy experts, even though the claim is based on somewhat misleading data.

By proposing a bar-like exam, the AFT believes that it will force changes throughout the teacher-preparation pipeline, much the way the Flexner Report did for medical schools a century ago. The Flexner Report prompted states to write more rigorous licensing tests even as medical schools revamped their training programs and toughened entry requirements. One upshot was that by 1935, half the medical schools in operation at the turn-of-the-20th century had closed (and inroads made by women were reversed as most medical schools became all-male institutions.)

The AFT may also be gambling that more rigorous licensing standards will serve as a stumbling block for alternative certification programs, such as Teach for America, a key source of teachers for nonunion charter schools. While Abraham Lincoln famously qualified for the bar without going to law school, over the years, the increased rigor of the bar has made three years of law school a virtual requirement for aspiring lawyers.

The idea is also part of a growing push to reverse a trend — often the result of past and current political battles — that many educators say has dumbed down state and local licensing requirements. For example, in New York City, in the 1990s, the controversial Board of Examiners, which was initially established in the late 19th century to ensure that teaching jobs were based on merit, and not patronage, was eliminated in the aftermath of a law suit charging that the tests made it difficult for minorities to pass.

Today, “it’s the right-wing reformers who are lowering standards,” says Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education and leading critic of the corporate education-reform movement, noting that Tony Bennett’s final act after losing his re-election bid, last November, as Indiana superintendent of public instruction — he was recently appointed education commissioner in Florida — was to weaken the state’s requirements for new teachers.

In particular, Bennett pushed through the state’s so-called adjunct teacher permit, which allows an applicant with just a BA degree and a 3.0 GPA, and who can pass a subject test, to teach for five years without any other training or student-teaching experience.

Bennett has defended the changes as expanding opportunities for teaching in Indiana’s classrooms. “The more opportunities we have with the ability to bring talent into Indiana classrooms, talent into Indiana school buildings, talent into Indiana school corporations, I think that’s good public policy,” he told reporters, according to Indiana’s State Impact news website.

Meanwhile, licensing rules in most states do little more than “screen out the bottom few who can’t master the English language or are badly schooled,” says Eric Nadelstern, the former New York City deputy schools chancellor and visiting professor of practice at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

The state that has pushed hardest to boost teacher requirements may be Massachusetts. After the Commonwealth created its much-lauded curriculum framework in the 1990s, it also revamped the state’s licensing regulations and tests. The new curriculum “would have amounted to little more than black and white noise without an academically stronger corps of teachers to teach to them,” writes Sandra Stotsky, who holds the “21st century chair in teacher quality” at the University of Arkansas and served as senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Education, with responsibility for revising the state's teacher licensing regulations and tests. Since 2005, Massachusetts has ranked at the top of National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in fourth and eighth grade reading and math, as well the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study scores in science and math in 2007 and 2011 (the state participated as an independent country).

Tougher tests will almost certainly result in many more failures among test takers. When Massachusetts instituted new licensing rules requiring prospective teachers to pass a new elementary math test, 75 percent of applicants failed in 2009, the first year the test was administered, according to Stotsky.

Many educators worry that the unintended consequences of a teacher’s “bar exam” could be to weed out many of the people they want in the classroom. “The only thing I'm certain a bar exam will do is keep out minorities,”says Chrystina Russell, the principal of a highly rated public middle school in Harlem who strives to make sure that her teaching staff resembles her black and Latino student body. Adds Nadelstern: “I don’t trust the testing industry to put together a test that is inclusive on the basis of gender, sexual persuasion or race.”

One reason that they see such an exam as disadvantaging people of color is that native speakers of Spanish and vernacular African-American dialects are at a disadvantage on written tests based on standard English because they often come from communities that are much more homogonous both ethnically and linguistically than those in which other immigrant groups live, according to Nadelstern, who adds: Speaking Yiddish didn’t get you very far if you grew up in an Irish, Italian and Jewish neighborhood.

The AFT counters that it has modeled its proposal on the so-called edTPA, formerly the Teacher Performance Assessment, which, instead of the prevailing multiple-choice  tests and written essays,  emphasizes a detailed “review of a teacher candidate's authentic teaching materials,” including video clips of instruction, lesson plans, student work samples and analyses of student learning. The aim of edTPA tests, which are subject-specific, is to evaluate how a prospective teacher actually teaches a given subject to real students, rather than her theoretical knowledge of teaching.

So far seven states, including Illinois, Washington and Minnesota, have adopted the edTPA, which was developed by Stanford University and the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education; test administration and scoring are being coordinated by Pearson, the education company. New York State is adopting edTPA beginning in 2014.

The edTPA assessment is not without controversy. Last year, students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, one of 200 colleges in close to two dozen states where the new assessments were being piloted, refused to participate, saying the requirement that students submit 20-minute videos of their teaching practice was too onerous. They also questioned whether the test evaluators, who are being paid $75 to review each assessment, will put in the two to two-and-a-half hours necessary to do a thorough job. While Pearson helps to recruit scorers, Stanford notes that the scorers are experienced teachers who have been specially trained to evaluate the assessments.

Taking the edTPA will cost prospective teachers $300, about double what licensure tests cost today, but still far less than other licensing tests, such as those for nursing or the law.

Such controversy may be why the AFT, rather than adopting the edTPA outright, has asked The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which established the standards for so-called master teachers, to convene a gathering of educators and other “stakeholders” to design a multi-dimensional entry bar that could well include edTPA, minimum GPAs for teacher-prep candidates, as well as new student-teaching requirements.

With many states already signed up for edTPA, there is a danger that the AFT’s  “bar exam” could result in yet another addition to the national licensure smorgasbord — rather than a national consensus.

“There is a tension here with the AFT’s desire to get to a single national system,” concedes Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford Univ., and a contributor to edTPA’s development. “How to get there is not immediately clear. We already have a patchwork. It’s conceivable that you could end up with more than one addition to the current schema.”

The biggest problem with the AFT’s proposal may not be getting consensus—but getting it too quickly. The rush to jump on the next big thing, no matter how dubious the evidence, may be the biggest Achilles heel of the education reform movement. EdTPA’s predecessor, a performance-assessment test known as PACT that has been used in California for several years, has shown promise. Yet it will be a few years — when student achievement data are available for the teachers who participated in the edTPA pilots — before strong conclusions can be drawn on whether the assessments can weed out bad apples and select for teachers who consistently improve student achievement.

But that hasn’t stopped numerous states from jumping on the edTPA bandwagon. Similarly, even though Massachusetts curriculum framework propelled student achievement in the Commonwealth to the top of national and international rankings, the state effectively jettisoned that framework for the untested Common Core; Massachusetts has also embraced edTPA.

As for whether a “bar” exam will help get teachers, and the teaching profession, more respect: That might be an even bigger hurdle.

Reprinted by permission of the author,

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