Praxis makes perfect? New teacher standards aim to boost quality

Some question whether test alone makes a good educator

Iowa’s new teachers will be among the top 75 percent in the nation, at least according to new licensure requirements that went into effect this week.

The regulations stipulate that all new educators must score in the 25th percentile or higher nationwide on tests measuring content knowledge and teaching skills.

“The student in the classroom deserves to have an instructor who is competent in their subject area and competent in their pedagogy,” said Mike Cormack, a former teacher and current policy liaison for the Iowa Department of Education.

The rule emerged from Senate File 2284, a bill which called for a number of education reforms, and received approval from the Iowa State Board of Education in November. As of Tuesday, any teacher seeking licensure in Iowa must be among the top 75 percent of performers nationwide on the Praxis tests. The Educational Testing Service, which also is behind the GRE, SAT and Advanced Placement tests, administers the exams.

“This is a part of the work to make stronger teachers,” said Larry Bice, administrative consultant in practitioner preparation at the Iowa Department of Education. “I think the ultimate goal is that student achievement and student learning will improve.”

Already-licensed teachers will not have to take the tests or be retroactively held to some sort of comparable assessment.

“I don’t know that we’ve actually addressed that,” said Bice of a potential gap between teachers who are subject to the new regulations and those who were not. “We’re focusing on the statute, and this is what we need to do to move forward.”

The cutoff

In the past, as a function of No Child Left Behind requirements, aspiring elementary education teachers had to pass their choice of a Praxis content knowledge test or a curriculum, instruction and assessment exam in order to obtain licensure in Iowa.

According to Bice, before this year students had to score at least 142 on the content exams in order to receive licenses in Iowa. Now, individuals will have to earn scores of 151 or higher on the same tests.

They also will have to pass a different Praxis curriculum, instruction and assessment (also known as “pedagogy”) exam than the one potential elementary teachers have taken in the past.

“The pedagogy test is a better test because it’s more comprehensive of the students’ pedagogy, the students’ knowledge and understanding,” Bice said. “It’s not so much that it’s a better test but it’s more comprehensive, more accurate.”

Bice and Cormack both referenced data that shows “approximately 94 percent” of the state’s aspiring elementary educators passed the aforementioned exams at the 25th percentile cutoff.

“We’ve argued all along that this is a pretty minimal standard,” Cormack said. “Weeding out the absolute lowest test-takers you have.”

In addition, the new regulation does not prevent undergraduates from receiving education degrees from their colleges or universities. The Praxis score will only impact their ability to become licensed.

Will it work?

Using the exam scores to determine who should receive licensure is the test’s purpose, said Peter Yeager, National Client Relations director for the Educational Testing Service’s Praxis Program. Even still, he acknowledged that the scores are indicators of knowledge and not necessarily ability.

“You can’t necessarily say that because someone has a very high or a very low Praxis score, that they will necessarily be a good or bad teacher,” Yeager said. “The tests don’t predict performance per se. They do recognize that someone does have a particular amount of content knowledge.”

Peter Hlebowitsh, dean of the University of Alabama College of Education and former department executive officer and professor at the University of Iowa College of Education, doubts whether the new regulations will result in a stronger crop of teachers, though he did call the Praxis “a nice test.”

“It might keep weaker academic students out of the profession, but I’m not certain that will be the case, and I’m not certain that will necessarily keep weaker teachers out of the profession,” he said. “I’m not certain what the Praxis has to do with quality teaching.”

Licensure applicants will be able to take the tests, which cost an estimated $250, an unlimited amount of times — with no penalty — until they reach the score threshold.

“It seems to me, if you have unlimited shots at it, you’re eventually going to hit the 25th percentile,” said Hlebowitsh, who advocated for grade-point average as a more accurate measure or indicator of teacher efficacy.

Rob Boody, coordinator of assessment for the College of Education at the University of Northern Iowa, pointed to the larger issue of defining what constitutes quality teaching.

“I don’t want to diss the test because we want to make sure people have certain knowledge and skills and [the Praxis] is part of a way of doing that, but it is not everything,” he said. “There is disagreement in the field about what actually constitutes a good teacher. It’s harder to pin down than you think.”

In addition, he said that students can pass the Praxis without necessarily being quality educators.

“I don’t want to say it’s unproductive,” Boody said. “However, I think you could still pass some of that and be a bad teacher.”

State officials are eying a new method to more effectively judge teacher quality. The alternative assessment, called the edTPA, would take a number of components — including a submitted portfolio and observing a student as he or she teaches — into account in order to achieve licensure.

Because the edTPA is still in its pilot phase, the state cannot yet fully adopt and implement it. Both Cormack and Bice said officials are open to the idea of changing the requirements once something like edTPA is fully field tested and vetted.

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