Testing Teachers

If you were ever one of those students who wished you could be the one grading your teacher instead of the other way around, the federal government may be about to grant your wish, vicariously anyway. This week, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has threatened to give failing grades to some states for not testing teachers adequately.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act (2002), which was passed with bipartisan support, all states were given until August to demonstrate that teachers in their school systems were "highly qualified" in core teaching areas. But several states are so far behind in meeting these standards that they could lose federal funding.

"I want states to know that Congress and the president mean business on the law," Spellings told The New York Times in a recent interview. Spellings was criticized by some education reformers last year for taking a go-slow approach in forcing school systems to meet the NCLB requirements, but the only complaints now are coming from states that don’t measure up — and the teachers unions. "Last year it was, ‘We’re marching together toward the deadline,’" Spellings said, "but now it’s time for, ‘Your homework is due.’"

Both Maine and Nebraska have received letters from the education department warning that they may lose federal funds because their teacher testing program flunked the government’s standards. The feds allowed Nebraska to administer teacher-devised tests in its 250 school districts instead of a statewide test, but the state failed to demonstrate that teachers in all districts were being held to a high standard, according to the Times. In all, the education department has notified 34 states that their teacher testing had major problems and would be subject to mandatory oversight.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that teachers aren’t measuring up. Teacher certification in most states has been a joke for years. In the District of Columbia, for example, teachers can be certified by scoring barely above the 20th percentile on the Praxis test, an exam used by 29 states to test who is fit to teach. The other states aren’t much better, granting certification to teachers so long as they score above the bottom third of all test takers.

Yet the National Education Association, the largest union in the nation, has fought tougher standards all the way. Even the smaller American Federation of Teachers, which is usually a more sensible voice on education reform matters, has resisted re-testing veteran teachers so long as they’ve already met the abysmally low state certification requirements.

And it’s no wonder that teachers have a rough time when they’re the ones being tested. A recent study by the American Institutes for Research showed that education majors had the lowest levels of practical literacy among college students. When asked to evaluate the arguments in a newspaper opinion article, such as this one, or summarize the results of an opinion survey, or compare credit card offers with different interest rates and fees, education majors scored at the bottom of the class. Education majors also have among the lowest SAT scores and do poorly on other measures of verbal and mathematical ability.

How can we expect elementary and secondary students to improve their achievement when the men and women who teach them are so ill-prepared to impart the necessary skills? Much of the emphasis in NCLB — and the criticism it has generated — has been focused on the required testing of students. But it’s hard to imagine how students can perform better unless we ensure that teachers know the subject matter in the first place.

No doubt the states that receive poor grades from the U.S. Department of Education will cry foul, but insisting that all teachers meet high standards is critical to true education reform. We’re putting the cart before the horse when we insist on higher test scores for students but accept mediocrity from teachers.