Last November, I
was one of hundreds of prospective teachers to take the Michigan Test for
Teacher Certification — the basic skills test as well as content tests in political
science and history, my certification areas. These tests gave me the clearest evidence I have seen so far that the
way Michigan licenses its public school teachers is dysfunctional and
Pearson Education, the company that creates and implements the tests, the MTTCs
are intended to "ensure that each certified teacher has the necessary basic
skills and content knowledge to serve in Michigan schools." They are "designed to help identify those
candidates who have the level of knowledge required to perform satisfactorily
as entry-level teachers in their fields of specialization."
Those seem like
reasonable policy goals, but do the tests really further those goals?
Does the fact that a candidate pays for and eventually passes the MTTCs, as
required by Michigan's lengthy and costly teacher certification regime, provide
any unique, useful information to future employers or other stakeholders in the
Passing the MTTC
tells employers nothing about a prospective teacher's academic ability or
pedagogical competence relative to others in the job market. Unlike such tests
as the SAT, ACT, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Graduate Management
Admission Test (GMAT), the teacher certification tests are "criterion-referenced"
rather than "norm-referenced." That is,
they are "designed to measure a candidate's knowledge and skills in relation to
an established standard ... rather than
in relation to the performance of other candidates," as Pearson puts it.
And how high is
the standard that Michigan's future teachers are expected to meet? The clear
answer is: not very high.
Between 2005 and
2008, 86 percent of candidates who took an MTTC test passed it on their first
try. Those who fail on their first try
are free to take it again and again without limit or penalty until they pass.
tests are supposed to perform a screening function by setting a minimum
standard of competence. Since school districts in Michigan are limited to
hiring only people who have passed the MTTC tests and become certified by the
state, rather than whomever the districts believe is the best person for the
available teaching position, the certification tests should be held to rigorous
But the high pass
rates clearly show that the MTTCs screen out few if any prospective teachers.
purposes, the criterion-referenced tests of the Chartered Financial Analyst
(CFA) program and the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) program regularly have
pass rates of less than 50 percent, making these certifications relevant and
meaningful to prospective employers and clients.
Not only are the
MTTCs appallingly easy, they are also poorly designed. Most well-designed,
rigorous multiple-choice tests list five potential responses for each question;
the MTTCs list four. When I took the content-area tests in political science
and history, I was shocked to discover that roughly a quarter of the questions
were identical or nearly identical, with the answers slightly changed or reorganized.
of these tests should be made publicly available so that lawmakers and other
observers, including Michigan taxpayers, can evaluate their quality.
themselves gain little information of any value from their test results. For each section and subsection of a test,
candidates are scored with a "++++,"
"+++," "++," or "+", indicating whether they answered "most," "many," "some,"
or "few" of the questions correctly and whether their performance was "strong,"
"satisfactory," "limited" or lacking.
explains: "To preclude the use of MTTC scores for purposes other than
credentialing (e.g., employment, assignment), numerical scores of passing MTTC
candidates are not reported."
certification process keeps career-changing doctors, lawyers, business leaders
and college professors — regardless of their experience and qualifications —
out of teaching positions in K-12 schools unless they are willing to sit
through the requisite courses and jump through the bureaucratic hoops.
recently passed a new alternative certification law — House Bill 5596 — but the
"alternative" routes to teaching will retain most of the same features as the
traditional route. For instance, the new law requires that alternative
certification programs force would-be teachers to take the MTTCs and sit
through a teacher training program that is "the equivalent of at least 12
college credit hours."
In short, the
alternative certification law will not fundamentally change a structure that
keeps highly-qualified potential teachers out of the labor pool.
The MTTC tests
are part of the structural problem. They create a significant cost for
prospective teachers and for the state without providing any meaningful
return. They neither create a serious
screening process nor provide valuable information about candidates to
administrators or other education stakeholders.
It is time for
the Michigan Department of Education to dump the MTTCs. The best policy would be to abandon mandatory
teacher testing altogether and allow local administrators to evaluate and hire
applicants according to holistic, locally-designed criteria. Then the
administrators should be held accountable for the student outcomes that result
from their hiring decisions.
If the state
insists on testing prospective teachers and wants to make that testing
meaningful, it should require that candidates take the norm-referenced Graduate
The GRE — which
is designed to inform the admissions committees of graduate schools of how well
applicants stack up against each other — includes a verbal section, a
mathematics section, and a writing section, just like the MTTC Basic Skills
Test. But unlike the Basic Skills Test,
the GRE is challenging, rigorous and well-designed, and it may actually provide
useful information to the state, to schools, and to parents about the
prospective teachers seeking jobs in Michigan's public schools.
Ryan McCarl is a writer, preservice
teacher, and graduate student at the University of Michigan School of
Education. He blogs about education at www.wideawakeminds.com