Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Defining Literacy Lessons from High-Stakes Teacher Testing

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Defining Literacy Lessons from High-Stakes Teacher Testing

Article excerpt

   But this test goes against everything I'm being taught to teach!

This observation, from a frustrated undergraduate student participating in a workshop to prepare preservice teachers for the Communication and Literacy Skills (CLS) portion of the Massachusetts Educator Certification Tests (MECT), sums up a dilemma facing teacher educators across the nation: How do we prepare preservice teachers to pass new high-stakes certification tests when these tests are often based on philosophical perspectives that run counter to some of our most deeply held beliefs about literacy, learning, and teaching? As Massachusetts teacher educators and literacy scholars committed to a view of literacy as social practices and of teaching and learning as inquiry, we find ourselves facing this dilemma in relation to the CLS.

Designed by the testing company National Evaluation Systems, the CLS represents one half of Massachusetts's controversial new teacher certification test (the other half is a subject area test). The CLS consists of a reading subtest made up of multiple-choice and vocabulary items and a writing subtest that includes two writing exercises, a number of grammar and usage questions, and a dictation activity designed to measure test takers' grasp of written mechanics (see Table 1). Since its first April 1998 administration, when more than one half of the test takers failed, the MECT in general and the CLS in particular have generated storms of controversy in Massachusetts (Ebbert, 1998; Mason, 1998). Debates continue to rage about the appropriateness of the tests and about the quality of Massachusetts teachers and teacher education programs. In the meantime, however, the stakes remain high: Teacher candidates must pass the CLS to teach, and teacher education programs must reach an overall pass rate on the MECT of 80% of their graduates to retain their accreditation from the state.

TABLE 1: Overview of Massachusetts Educator Certification Test: Communication and Literacy Skills Test

Reading subtest
  Multiple-choice items are linked to reading passages. The sample
     passage is about bacteria farming, and the questions deal with
     main idea, writer's purpose, inferences about content, and
     underlying assumptions.
  Word meaning (vocabulary) items require candidates to write
     definitions of words. The words on the sample test are abolish
     and democracy.
Writing subtest
  Written summary requires candidates to read a passage and write a
     summary of it. Summaries are scored for fidelity to the content
     of the passage, conciseness, organization, sentence structure,
     usage, and mechanical conventions. The sample passage is
     about the meaning of the Constitution.
  Written composition requires candidates to write an essay on a
     specified topic. Essays are scored for appropriateness of topic
     and style, mechanical conventions, usage, sentence structure,
     focus and unity, organization, and development of ideas. The
     sample prompt involves taking a position about raising the
     federal tax on gasoline.
Grammar and usage
  Multiple-choice items are linked to passages that contain
     grammatical, usage, or structural errors. The sample item
     involves a passage about Martha Graham, with questions about
     the order of information and punctuation conventions.
  Sentence correction items present sentences that contain one or
     more errors and require the candidate to rewrite the sentence
     in edited American English. The following is a sample item:
     "Even though they both knew the boat was your's, neither Arthur
     nor Ed thought to ask themselves whether it was proper to use
     it without first obtaining permission."
     (Hint: There are two errors.)
  Grammar definition items require candidates to write definitions
     of grammatical terms. The sample items are "noun" and
     "preposition."
  Written mechanics involves listening to an audiotaped passage and
     writing it down word for word. … 
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