Colleges and Universities and Indiana University and K-12 and Public schools and Butler University and Teachers and Standardized test scores and Education & Workforce Development

Below-average test scores raise questions about elementary teachers, colleges

June 22, 2009

For Indiana students to meet realities of 21st century global competition, state schools chief Tony Bennett says it's critical to fill the ranks of elementary teachers with the highest academic achievers.

But students going into and out of Indiana's teacher education programs tend to score below average on standardized test scores. And national data indicate the gap is entirely attributable to those headed into elementary education.

While test scores don't separate good teachers from bad, Bennett said below-average scores reflect low admissions standards and expectations at Indiana's teacher ed programs—something he insists must change to improve teacher quality and student achievement in public schools.

"When we talk about teacher quality, it starts with teacher ed programs that truly demand that their graduates are high-quality graduates," said Bennett, who was a school principal and superintendent before being elected last year as superintendent of public instruction..

Not surprisingly, the leaders of teacher education programs reject the notion that their standards are low or that they turn out poor teachers. They counter that the best and brightest shun teaching because social stigmas denigrate the profession.

But all agree that the quality of teachers at Indiana's elementary schools needs to improve.

Only one-third of Indiana fourth-graders showed "proficiency" in reading in 2007, according to the National Assessment for Education Progress. Two-thirds of fourth-graders had "basic" reading skills.

Overall, fourth-graders' scores were slightly above the national average.

"If we don't get it right in elementary, we're doing patchwork the rest of the way," said Ena Shelley, dean of the College of Education at Butler University. "So we really do need the best and the brightest.."

Education reformers in Indiana and nationally have irked deans of education by repeatedly trying to demonstrate the inferiority of teachers and by creating a growing number of programs that aim to get teachers in classrooms by bypassing traditional teacher education programs.

Teach for America and the New Teacher Project, both based in New York, are examples. Both now operate in Indianapolis. Bennett wants to make it easier for such migration to occur.

Other programs are trying to attract high achievers from science and math careers back into teaching.

Just this year, Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment Inc. funded 59 scholarships for professionals in math, science, engineering and technology to receive accelerated master's training and then teach secondary school in urban or rural schools.

That program is being administered by the New Jersey-based Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation with two goals: to encourage more academic all-stars to go into teaching and to work with teacher education programs willing to transform their curriculum and methods.

Schools signing up include IUPUI and the University of Indianapolis, Ball State University in Muncie, and Purdue University in West Lafayette.

Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson foundation, was sharply critical of some teacher education programs in a 2006 report. He said far too many programs admit many students who are not teacher quality because teacher education programs are profitable and can pay for other programs in the university.

"So long as universities continue to use their education schools as cash cows, students who should not be teachers will continue to be admitted to the nation's education schools," Levine wrote.

Lagging test scores

Colleges and universities use various metrics to gauge student quality, but they all use standardized test scores.

Education majors at Indiana colleges and universities rank lower than peers in most other fields, according to numbers released by the schools and the maker of the SAT, the New Jersey-based College Board.

In 2008, Indiana high schoolers planning to major in college education programs scored 1,434 on their SATs on a 2,400-point scale. Their scores were 5 percent below the average of all collegebound seniors.

The trend held up at most Indiana colleges.

Education majors at Purdue in West Lafayette and Indiana University in Bloomington scored 6 percent below the student body average.

The gap was only 2 percent at IUPUI, the IU-run campus in Indianapolis. At Butler University, education majors fell 2 percent below the student body average on the SAT and 4 percent on the ACT, another standardized test taken by high schoolers.

There were exceptions to the trend. For example, at three IU satellite campuses—in Gary, New Albany and Richmond—education majors outpaced the rest of the student body. Also, education majors at Anderson University scored two points ahead of the student body average.

When teachers enter graduate school—which most do to meet continuing education requirements—the score gap persists, according to scores from the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE.

Because people taking the GRE declare an intended field, scores can be broken out by those going into elementary education and those planning to teach middle or high school.

Nationally, those going into elementary education scored 8 percent below the average of all test takers, based on a 1,600-point scale. Those heading into secondary teaching scored 10 points above the average of all test takers.

State-level data were not available from the maker of the GRE, New Jersey-based Educational Testing Service. Most Indiana graduate teacher education programs do not require their applicants to take the test.

Touchy about tests

Levine, who used to run the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, acknowledged that test scores have limited use as an indicator of student quality, let alone teacher quality.

"The problem is, we have no other indicator," he said. "This is the indicator schools have chosen to use."

He's not sure if a few points matter, but said "gross differences" do.

"Somebody who scores at the top of the SAT and somebody who scores at the bottom of the SAT have dramatically different skills," Levine said. "I would be loath to have my child taught by someone at the extreme low end of the scale."

But Shelley at Butler said evaluating teacher education programs by test scores alone is "like looking at a person's eye and not seeing their face." She said Butler does surveys and focus groups with principals and human resources directors in the schools where Butler graduates teach—to see if it's preparing them well.

Other education deans agree.

"SAT scores provide a convenient standardized tool for selective colleges to make admissions decisions, but they are certainly not a measure of intelligence or future job performance," Gerardo Gonzalez, dean of the School of Education at IU-Bloomington, wrote in an e-mail.

He even questions whether the apparent gap in scores is any gap at all. Most of it, Gonzalez explained, comes from the fact that the education program attracts a higher percentage of women and in-state students—groups that generally score lower on standardized tests than the average student body.

Bennett is pushing to develop a system that measures the effectiveness of public school teachers in the classroom and identifies which teacher education program they attended.

Shelley and Gonzalez concurred with that general goal, saying their schools already are developing such assessments. Until then, test scores are still the only standard way of comparing one teacher education program with another.

Calling for cultural change

In spite of their skepticism about test scores, Shelley and Gonzalez agree with Levine that public schools struggle partly because many of the best students avoid teaching.

They don't fault teacher education programs for that, but point to a social trend that looks down on the profession.

"Often, with the strong encouragement of parents, you're much more likely to find high-ability undergraduate students on campus who say they want to be in business, pre-med or pre-law than in teaching," Gonzalez wrote.

"This is a societal challenge, not just a challenge to teacher preparation programs," he added.

For Levine, it's also a financial challenge. Teacher compensation pales next to that of doctors, lawyers and many people in business. Students interested in those fields all scored higher on the SAT than did education majors.

Even education majors with higher SAT scores tend to find jobs at the higher-paying suburban schools. Lower-paying urban and rural schools have higher concentrations of teachers with low SAT scores, he said.

"Why would our academic superstars choose teaching for reasons other than idealism?" Levine asked.

But reform-minded politicians like Bennett aren't waiting for nebulous "societal" changes and have little time for arguments about teacher pay.

Bennett plans to push teacher education programs to change by altering the licensure standards for Indiana teachers so they have a majority of their coursework in specific fields instead of teaching methods.

He also wants to deregulate existing licensing standards so more professionals trained in other fields can become teachers without going through the traditional teacher education programs.

"I will never consider the status quo an option," he said.•

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