Storm Erupts Over Mass. Teacher Tests

Published September 1, 1998

Massachusetts lawmakers have united behind demands for increased scrutiny of teacher skills after nearly 60 percent of 1,800 prospective schoolteachers flunked a new certification test conducted earlier this year.

In testimony before the State Board of Education, teachers themselves questioned whether the test was an accurate predictor of classroom performance and pushed for lower standards. They had not been not given enough time to prepare for the test, they said, and contended that it should be graded on a curve since everyone did badly.

Curve grading was, in fact, employed by the Massachusetts Board of Education when it noted that only 41 percent of the state’s would-be teachers had scored above a D on the test. The board lowered the passing score, permitting some applicants who otherwise would have failed to teach in Massachusetts schools this fall, a decision that met with furious public criticism.

“We’re talking about [only] 263 people,” protested Commissioner of Education Frank Haydu III, complaining that teachers were being “tarred and feathered with being incompetent and illiterate.” Haydu later resigned, and the board voted to restore the original passing grade standard.

GOP acting governor A. Paul Cellucci, who had demanded that the Board of Education reverse its decision, proposed a measure to require competency testing not only for aspiring teachers but also for current teachers. Cellucci’s proposal would revoke the teaching licenses of teachers who failed to pass the test in two attempts.

Democrats were outraged by the test results as well. Senate President Thomas Birmingham said he had no objection to testing current teachers, while House Speaker Thomas Finneran said it was time for quality to accompany the dollars spent on education and to put everything on the table, “including tenure.”

Describing a teachers’ college degree “as meaningless as a piece of used Kleenex that’s been lying in the gutter after last week’s rainstorm,” Finneran criticized as “idiots” the candidates who couldn’t “define a noun or a verb or what democracy means or the meaning of the word ‘imminent.'” Their writing skills, he said, were below those of a high school freshman.

Massachusetts is not the first state to get a rude awakening on teacher quality. In July 1997, 75 percent of the teacher candidates in Suffolk County, New York, failed an 11th-grade-level reading comprehension test. And more than 20 percent of current high school teachers do not have even an undergraduate minor in the subject they teach, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.

In February this year, nearly a third of teacher applicants in Virginia failed to pass a basic skills test. If other states had set similar standards, more than half of the nation’s would-be teachers would have failed, according to Republican Governor James Gilmore.

Despite teacher union opposition, the bar is being raised. All but six states test prospective teachers, and cutoff scores for certification were recently raised in Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Texas is seeking sanctions against any state teacher college where 30 percent or more of its graduates flunk teacher certification exams. By contrast, teachers in North Carolina just beat back a plan to test the basic skills of teachers in 15 of the state’s worst schools.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].