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Taking a deeper look at teacher education programs

February 1, 2012
Melissa L. Heston
Des Moines Register
January 23, 2012

On Jan. 6, Gov. Branstad released recommendations for the reform of Iowa’s schools, in part by putting great teachers in every classroom. One suggested step in this direction is the legislation of higher admission standards for Iowa’s teacher education programs. In Gov. Branstad’s plan, these programs would only admit students who had scored in the upper 75 percent on a “pre-professional skills assessment.”

The administration's overall goal is a certainly a worthy one. Who could argue against trying to have a great teacher in every classroom? On the surface, the proposal regarding minimum required scores on a pre-professional skills test may seem reasonable. However, this particular proposal is highly questionable and, frankly, borders on an unethical use of such tests. Why? Because these skills tests are designed only to measure students’ competencies in reading, writing and mathematics. How students do on these tests says nothing about their actual future affectiveness as classroom teachers.

Since the 1960s, making high-stakes educational placement decisions based upon a single standardized test score has been an unacceptable practice. Law schools and medical schools consider far more than just students’ scores on the LSAT or MCAT. Similarly, when selecting potentially excellent future teachers, there are far more important factors to consider, such as professional dispositions, ability to work with children and collaborate with colleagues and families, creativity, diligence and leadership. Essentially, the only thing this particular recommendation will do is greatly reduce the talent pool in teacher education programs.

Let’s look specifically at the impact of Gov. Branstad’s recommendation on students in Iowa’s largest teacher education program, here at University of Northern Iowa. We require students to take the Praxis I exams, sometimes called the PPST (Pre-professional Skills Test.) Students must achieve both a minimum score of 170 on each exam and a total score of 522 to be admitted to our program. This means students must average 174 across all the exams, with some flexibility to score a little lower on one exam and a bit higher on the others and still get admitted to the program. Both Iowa State University and the University of Iowa have these same requirements.

Under the administration’s recommendation, the new cutoff scores for the exams would be 174 for reading, and 173 for writing and mathematics. Any student who missed even one of these cut scores by as little as one point couldn't be admitted to our teacher education program. Since most teacher education courses can’t be taken prior to program admission, these students would face two choices: a) changing their career goals altogether, or b) taking elective courses until they passed the test, delaying their progress to graduation.  

What’s the bottom line for our students? Using the new standards, 25 percent of our admitted teacher education students wouldn't meet the cut score for mathematics (by one to three points), 30 percent wouldn't meet the cut score for writing (by one to three points), and 28 percent wouldn't meet the cut score for reading (by one to four points). This is the case even though all these students scored at least a 522 on the Praxis I as a whole, and none of them scored less than a 170 on any exam.

Keep in mind that test scores are always estimates that contain an unknown amount of error, rather than truly accurate measures of a student’s competence. We can never know if the student who is admitted to the program by just meeting cutoff score minimums is actually more competent than the student who just missed one of the cutoff scores. Moreover, we can never know whether some of the students who were excluded based only on Praxis 1 cut scores would have been outstanding teachers.

We have approximately 2,400 teacher education students at UNI. If the administration’s new score standards were implemented immediately and without any flexibility, nearly 800 of our current students would be eliminated. These students would be dropped from our program despite any other evidence we have regarding their GPAs, professional dispositions, leadership skills or actual success working with children in classrooms. This seems a terrible waste of potential talent if our goal is to get the best teachers into Iowa's classrooms.