When Teachers Flunk the Test; Much Attention Has Been Given to the Poor Performance of U.S. Schoolchildren on Proficiency Tests, but Many Teachers Have Their Own Problems Making the Grade

Article excerpt

Byline: Kelly Patricia O'Meara, INSIGHT

In the 1992 military-justice drama A Few Good Men, Tom Cruise got into a heated dialogue with costar Demi Moore about a point of law, sarcastically asking if she was "absent the day they taught law at law school." Given the pathetic test scores of America's schoolchildren, many are wondering if a similar question might be raised about those hired to teach the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Due to the public outcry over low test scores, teachers in a growing number of states are being required to take basic-skills examinations in their course curricula and, much to the surprise of no one but those in the teaching profession, they are failing these tests in alarming numbers. In a nation that collects data on everything else, however, there are no national data to identify the extent of the problem. But there have been sporadic state and local news accounts that suggest it is both severe and alarming.

So, based on the small amount of information made available, just how bad are teachers in the public schools?

According to a September 2001 Chicago Sun-Times series that reviewed test scores for elementary, junior/middle and high-school teachers in Illinois, 67,118 teachers were tested between July 1988 and April 2001 and 5,243 failed at least one test while 1,308 failed three or more. On basic-skills tests alone, 66,769 teachers were tested during the same period and 2,132 failed at least one test, 414 failed three or more tests and 868 failed to pass any basic-skills test.

In June of this year, the Lawrence, Mass., school district put 21 teachers on unpaid leave because they could not test well enough in English to be understood in that language in a classroom. Of 92 teachers tested in Lawrence for

English fluency, 31 failed and, given a second opportunity, only four passed.

According to the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), 35 states use a test called Praxis I to certify that graduates have sufficient general knowledge, professional skills and subject knowledge to teach in a public-school classroom. In 1998, Virginia's then-governor, conservative Republican James Gilmore, reported that as many as one-third of would-be teachers in his state flunked the test. Virginia has the country's highest cutoff score for Praxis I, and experts say scarcely one-half of the prospective teachers nationwide who took the test would have made the Virginia cut.

According to a report commissioned by the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future:

* Fewer than one-half of the nation's 1,200 teachers colleges meet professional standards of accreditation.

* In recent years, more than 50,000 teachers who lack training for their jobs have entered teaching annually on emergency or substandard certification.

* More than 40 states allow school districts to hire teachers who have not met basic education requirements, and more than 12 percent of new teachers nationwide begin with no training at all.

* When Pennsylvania evaluated its teacher testing, it discovered that teachers could qualify for positions in hard-to-fill subject areas just by signing their names.

* In Hawaii, one-half of new hires failed either to complete or pass certification exams.

* In Long Island, N.Y., a superintendent who decided to give teaching applicants an English test normally given to 11th-graders discovered that only one in four could pass.

* Among the 21 states using the Praxis I math test to screen teachers, most set cutoff scores so low that applicants could miss 40 percent of questions and still pass.

Given this data, it is little wonder the testing of teachers is one of the hottest issues facing educators. What is astonishing is that the vast majority of professional educators and school administrators interviewed for this article did not believe that failing the basic tests should be sufficient to disqualify a teacher from remaining on the job. …