Massachusetts college officials shocked at woeful failure rate on teacher test
by Brian Fitzgerald
"Appalling" scores on the new Massachusetts teacher certification test "demonstrate the existence of an educational disaster," says state Board of Education Chairman John Silber, who has been pushing for higher standards at schools of education since being appointed to the post in late 1995.
The test results, released July 6, prompted college officials across the state to seek answers after 59 percent of the nearly 1,800 candidates failed the exam. The institutional scores, released 12 days later, also sparked an out-cry as some of the state's best-known schools had among the highest failure rates.
Boston University, with 65.7 percent passing, ranked second in the percentage of students who passed among colleges with more than 50 students taking the test. "Although Boston University students scored relatively high -- far above the average in the independent sector, and still higher above the average in the state sector -- we are not satisfied with the results," says Silber, who is also BU's chancellor.
He adds that although a full understanding of the first round of the test must await a detailed breakdown of the scores, the institutional scores "are a start at learning which of the commonwealth's education programs are failing badly and which are relatively successful. I say 'relatively successful' because with the exception of only a handful of programs -- many of them at the graduate level -- with only a few graduates being tested, no institution scored well enough for satisfaction."
Silber says that BU School of Education Dean Edwin Delattre told him that he will call his faculty together and give the school two years to raise the percentage of its students who pass the examination to 90 percent. "If that goal is not met, he will recommend that the school be closed," says Silber.
With 79.1 percent passing, Boston College ranked first among the schools with more than 50 students taking the new combined literacy and competency tests. The University of Massachusetts in Amherst ranked third with a 55 percent pass rate. Gov. Paul Cellucci and Silber want to require an 80 percent passing rate on schools of education -- a figure that only 3 of the state's 56 education schools attained. Those three schools had fewer than 50 students taking the test.
"This is a scandal of national proportion," says Delattre, a member of the Board, "and the test proves . . . Massachusetts is not exempt from this really grim condition of the preparation of teachers."
Using examples of spelling errors on the Massachusetts teacher test, ("belive," "messures," "invatation," etc.), Silber wrote in a July 7 New York Times opinion piece that one has to look no further than aspiring teachers to explain the increasing inability of students to express themselves in grammatically correct and cogent argument. "No responsible person would subject anyone's children, much less his own, to such teachers," he wrote. Some of the candidates wrote at a fifth- and sixth-grade level.
Beefing up teaching standards, however, seems to be on the national agenda. In polls, voters are rating education as the campaign season's top priority. And for good reason: almost one third of Virginia's would-be educators couldn't pass a basic skills test earlier this year. In a Suffolk County, N.Y., school district, three quarters of the teaching applicants flunked an 11th-grade-level reading comprehension test last July.
Still, Massachusetts is one of the last states to require prospective teachers to pass an exam to be certified. Silber points out that the state Legislature mandated certification tests in 1985, "but nothing was done to comply with that law until November of 1996, when the Board of Education unanimously voted that after January 1998, teachers would not be certified unless they had passed an examination of competence in the English language and in the subject matter they planned to teach."
Officials at several schools, including Northeastern and Clark Universities (with passing rates of 17 and 25, respectively), said that because of their students' performance, they are already planning significant curriculum changes, especially in writing.
Seeking to lure more qualified candidates into a profession that pays an average starting salary of $25,000, Massachusetts Senate President Thomas Birmingham (D-Chelsea) last month proposed giving top college graduates a $20,000 signing bonus to attract the best and brightest into teaching. The money would come from a $900 million state budget surplus. "I remain confident we will restore the public schools of the commonwealth of Massachusetts to their historical status as the envy of the United States of America," he says.
Re-tests were offered in July and will be offered again in October. The state Department of Education has announced that prospective teachers may take the test as often as they like.
Silber says that at Boston University, "we will respond decisively to the valuable information from these tests because we are not content with less than high success and because we have a strong base to build on." The mean combined SAT score for students entering SED is 1,202. A 1996 study by the Massachusetts Board of Education found schools of education accepting students with as low a combined score as 642.
"It is essential that all institutions in the commonwealth that prepare teachers heed the test results and determine either to educate teachers worthy of our schools or to get out of the business of training teachers," says Silber. "Our children and their communities deserve nothing less."