Why American Students Do Not Learn To Read Very Well: The Unintended Consequences of Tittle II and Teacher Testing
The 1998 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act requires states to report annually to the U.S. Department of Education the number of prospective teachers at each of their teacher training institutions who pass the state’s tests for licensure. However, the law left decisions on what licensure tests to require, what to assess on them, and their passing scores up to each state. This paper provides an analysis of the descriptions of the subject tests assessing reading instructional knowledge that prospective elementary teachers in this country take for licensure: those offered by Educational Testing Service, a variety of those provided by National Evaluation Systems, and the one offered by American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. I examined these descriptions to determine whether the tests appear to address three major components of a research-based approach to reading pedagogy (instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary knowledge), the weights attached to knowledge of these three components, and the quality of the sample questions they provide. In order to estimate the percentage of test items addressing these three components on each test, I drew on information on the websites of the three major organizations that develop teacher tests as well as of the states that have contracts with NES. To judge by the topics mentioned in the profile for the tests that states require for elementary licensure and the weights attached to the sections of the test containing these topics, most of ETS’s tests devote a tiny proportion of their content to these three components. These tests are used by over 35 states for licensure. The profiles of the tests developed by NES for its client states for elementary licensure range from some that are similar to the ETS tests to some that substantially address these three components. I also analyzed the profiles of the tests required for licensure as a reading teacher, reading specialist, early childhood teacher, or special education teacher. This extended analysis was undertaken to determine the extent to which professional preparation programs may be accountable for teaching these four other groups of educators what they need to know to support or supplement the reading pedagogy provided by elementary classroom teachers. To judge by the online information provided by the testing companies, tests for licensing reading teachers and reading specialists range from a few NES tests that seem to assess these components fully to other NES and ETS tests that seem to address them quite meagerly. Alarmingly, the tests most states require for licensing special education and early childhood teachers do not address these components at all. In addition, ETS offers a set of pedagogical tests of “principles of teaching and learning,” required by many states for the initial license of all teachers in addition to a subject test, that, to judge from its sample questions, seems to denigrate non-constructivist approaches to pedagogy. The findings of this study suggest that even a drastic revision of currently deficient licensure tests for prospective elementary teachers to ensure they are taught a research-based approach to reading pedagogy will not be sufficient to guarantee the use of such an approach. What is needed is systematic revision of all licensure tests for those who teach children or who supervise or supplement the work of those who do to make sure that they all promote a research-based approach to reading pedagogy.
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