Friday, March 6, 2015

Those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad teacher certification exams

Are you familiar with a recurring anxiety dream where you are taking an important examination on material you are not familiar with, have not been able to study carefully, and feel you will most certainly fail? Well, students studying to become teachers in New York State are living this dream as reality. In what is clearly an intentional effort to produce higher failure rates on licensure exams, the New York State Education Department has rushed to implement new, harder tests and to make the edTPA a certification requirement as part of a political agenda backed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Governor Cuomo, and former Commissioner John King.
Teacher education programs are frantically scrambling to accommodate students who are in a full-blown panic and understandable confusion over the sudden change in regulations. Even the Board of Regents is attempting to reduce the disastrous effects of this completely bungled roll out, perhaps making things worse. Meanwhile, the public is in the dark about what is happening in part because of the technical nature of teacher licensure, and in part because of a lack of attention to teacher education in journalism.
What is so terrible about these certification exams? Overall, there are six issues in my opinion that top the long list. I’ll start with that overview, and then I’ll get into specifics about each of the exams. Consider this my attempt at a 101 course on what it takes to become a teacher in New York State, besides getting a masters degree from a college or university.


            Each of these tests is timed, with the exception of the edTPA, although that must usually be completed within the one semester of student teaching in the vast majority of programs. No one reports having leftover time, they work right up to the last minute. The timing of when you must take the tests is dictated by individual programs. Some are required for admission, some after a certain number of credits, some prior to student teaching. The problem is if you fail, you are likely to be derailed from your progress in the program, which costs you more than just a retake. There are time limits on when you can retake the exams. Some students are also taking CLEP exams to compensate for missing undergraduate course requirements. Let’s just say that throughout your time in a teacher preparation program you are worrying about certification exams.


            The new exams are computer based, and cost more than the old exams. You will easily spend upwards of $1,000 on these exams. Even practice tests cost you $30. There were a handful of vouchers distributed to colleges for some exams, but not nearly enough to meet demands of those with financial aid. If you schedule an exam and need to cancel, you only get a partial rebate. If you want to contest your edTPA score, you must pay $200, which does not entitle you to a new evaluation, only to an internal investigation of the scoring process. It’s half as much to do a one-task retake, so that’s the likelier choice in the event you don’t have a passing score.


            There are now four exams required for initial certification. It seems they want to cover all the content of the preparation program, maybe so that eventually someone can circumvent a masters program altogether. The state says the tests measure “knowledge and skills that are necessary for service in the state’s schools.” The type of knowledge that can be measured in multiple choice and short essay questions is quite limited, and I think to assume the tests measure skill level accurately is really a stretch. There’s certainly no shortage of the encyclopedic factoids to invent as essential for teachers to know, so they will probably continue to invent new tests and questions ad infinitum.


            Teacher educators would like to know what makes these tests valid, what research has been done to show that those who pass are better teachers than those that don’t. Good luck Googling that! There is virtually no transparency regarding who designed and developed the exams, how and when they were piloted and normed, and zero studies on their validity.  The state provides vague details on the “standard setting committees”  and cut score processes, claims they were field tested, and that individuals on the committees are qualified to make these important determinations. Even without expertise in psychometrics, it’s easy to see that someone is trying to hide something.


            In order to be inexpensive to score, the format of the exams tends to be all about one right answer. Even in the edTPA, supposedly the most holistic of the exams, the rubrics and scoring guides are so rigid that there is virtually no room for human interpretation. Those exams that claim to measure writing skills are actually asking for robotic 5-paragraph essay style answers that having nothing to do with real writing. On multiple-choice questions, how is it possible to differentiate between a right answer and a good guess? It isn’t. It might just be a lucky guess.


            At least two of the exams are racially discriminatory, as Peter Goodman showed with data that was not made publically available back in November on his blog. “The pass rate for White test takers on the EAS was 82%, Non-White test takers 74%. The pass rate for White test takers on the ALST was 74%, Non-White test takers 55%.” You’d think that losing prior civil rights lawsuits over the old certification exam would prevent the state from continuing to take actions that reduce the diversity of the teacher workforce. You’d be wrong.

The Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST) 
            In my opinion, this is the absolute worst test on the planet. Touted by Governor Cuomo as the equivalent of an 8th grade reading and writing test (he should try taking my version), this new test has virtually no relationship to the previous test with the same letters in the acronym, the LAST, which attempted to measure liberal arts knowledge gained in college years. Instead, in 3.5 hours, you must answer 40 selected-response questions pertaining to reading passages, write two focused-response 200 word essays and one extended-response 400 word essay pertaining to pro/con reading passages and a graph or chart. Topics for the essay portion seem to have been selected by someone searching the tax code for the dullest “controversies” swimming in economic and legal jargon. Here’s a sample of two focused-responses and an extended-response to give you an idea. The state describes this as “complex and nuanced writing” but I think it could be used to cure insomnia. Results from the first 11,371 test takers  were just what the politicians hoped for: only 68% passed, and only 7% at the “mastery” level. Look at all those illiterate wanna-be teachers who can’t pass a middle school test!

The Educating All Students Test (EAS
At least the content of this 90 minute selected-response and constructed-response test pertains to something teachers care about – their students. Five areas are tested, but the two types of responses pertain to the three most important (according to the test creators): diverse student populations, English language learners, and students with disabilities and special learning needs. There are a few multiple-choice questions on teacher responsibilities and home-school relations. I fear that this test contributes to problematic notions that students who are multilingual or have disabilities should be flagged as potentially students of concern. Sample questions contain oversimplifications of classroom contexts as having a majority of students from “one culture” with a new minority “immigrant population” and use in-vogue terminology such as “culturally responsive” with little to no depth. Again, initial results from over 10,000 test takers had 77% passing, only 3% at the “mastery” level.

Content Specialty Tests (CSTs)
These are meant to cover all of the certification areas to ensure that physical education teachers, for example, know enough about physical education to teach it. The new versions of these tests are so new that there are people still waiting for their score results, promised in early 2015, because the state “standard setting committees” haven’t worked out the harder cut scores yet. You can’t make this stuff up. The latest information says scores will be released in spring.  Sample multiple choice questions on the arts and sciences portion of the four multi-subject tests taken by early childhood through high school teachers include a few doozies such as:
Running repeated sprints at maximum speed would be the most appropriate way to develop the endurance needed for successful participation in which sport? Choices are: American football, cross-country, basketball, and soccer. The correct answer is supposedly football, because “players undergo repeated bursts of intense activity…involving running short to medium distances at high speeds.” I don’t know much about football, but from what I have seen, linebackers seem to just block the opposing team’s linebackers. The best way to pick the football answer is actually to notice that the other three choices all obviously involve a considerable amount of running and therefore cancel each other out. Therefore the question is measuring test-taking knowledge rather than content knowledge.

Teacher Performance Assessment (edTPA)
I have previously written extensively about problems with the Stanford’s SCALE developed/Pearson scored monster test that is taking over teacher education curriculum like an out-of-control garden weed. As one of two “edTPA Coordinator” faculty at Mercy College, I am increasingly convinced this belongs in induction, when teachers are not guests in another teacher’s classroom, because it is simply too burdensome and time-consuming to complete in a semester of student teaching. Two semesters of student teaching are not an option for most programs due to cost and working students who can ill-afford to give up employment for that length of time. Tales from the field include such horror stories as student teachers being told to complete TWO edTPAs so the best can be submitted, videos coded as unscoreable because of sound quality issues or even students’ full names visible on desks, complex classroom arrangements to obtain optimal video (how about the book storage closet?), confusion over the difference between language functions and forms, and a nightmare over official retake policies that, heaven forbid, might require additional classroom placements after student teaching is over and graduation requirements have been met. I’m sure college lawyers are on the phone right now comparing insurance policies and trying to figure out if non-matriculated students are covered or not.

In my statement during yesterday’s UUP press conference in Albany, I tried to convey the stark difference between what my students know, do, and write thoughtfully about and what is measured (supposedly) by these exams. I included the essay written by Sami-Beth Cohen who is currently student teaching in an excellent public school in Manhattan to share her rage and frustration with these policies and the inflammatory rhetoric of Governor Cuomo. Please add your voice to ours. Now that you’ve had my 101 course, I promote you to the next level: concerned citizen.


  1. The New York Times reported on bias concerns in the ALST yesterday:

    1. I have been teaching the NYSTCE exclusively for the last 6 years or so. I would not necessarily agree that the essays are hard, I do agree that they are the type of essay you would expect an 8th grade student to be able to write. However the problem in my opinion is the impossibly high standard needed to pass.

      Most lay people who hear that teachers are failing their certification exams seem to be under the impression that they are coming in with scores in the low 70s or 60s. In fact you need an average of 86.6 to pass these tests. I have had many students fail this test with an average of 85%.

      I'd love for the State to explain how you can refuse someone's certification because they scored an 85% on a test, but I have watched this happen for almost a year now. It's one thing for a school to requre a certain score before hiring a candidate, quite another to deny a professional their license because they "only got a B plus" on the test.

      The other issue is no feedback whatsoever. In fact on the EAS students are not even told the difference between their essay scores and the multiple choice. We have had to blindly try to figure out why the students are failing.

      The entire set up of these exams is draining, emotionally abusive, extremely expensive and patently unfair. Now that they have revised the requirements we shall see if they are willing to compensate people for the damage they have done.

      As always Brooklyn Education Center is here to help teachers pass. Now that there seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel, it should be more hopeful.

      Thanks for posting this Alexandra, I have shared it on our wall.

  2. I am a white American language teacher who has failed the CST for Mandarin 4 times. I am fluent in Mandarin, yet each time I take it I am given a lower score. Pearson stands behind their cryptic scoring, which I am sure is done by native speakers, many of whom have a notorious bias against non-Chinese people trying to teach their language. The last time, I was given a score basically equivalent to having walked in and written my name, and walked out. This unfair bias lost me my dream job and I will never forgive Pearson.

  3. Keep exposing the Pearson fraud, it will help dismantle their monopoly.

  4. I find it very suspicious that you cannot find what the average scores were on the edTPAs submitted in 2015. I also question the validity and reliability of the edTPA when Pearson continued to make amendments to it while teacher candidates were in the middle of submission. If various amendments were made to the handbook then it obviously wasn't ready to be shared with the public. This culture of placing blame on teachers and punishing them has to stop.

  5. I'm taking the EDtpa now and still need to take the EAS, Multi-subject CST and CST Students with Disabilities after failing the Multi-Subject and EAS by 11 and 5 points.
    The EDtpa is in itself is making me wonder how recording one or two lessons in a class which isn't our own affirms we'll be good teachers? Add to it the price future teachers are being punished.

  6. I managed to pass the content tests on my first attempt despite moving from out of state and not taking any preparatory classes but it's a credit only to my high IQ and test taking abilities. I can easily see superior teachers not fairing as well. Today I took the ALST. It was a lot easier than the practice exams I looked through (for me) but then I reached the end and there was a copy right notice for a couple of articles or excerpts I did NOT see on the exam (and no copy right notices for any of the ones that I did.) If that's wrong, how can I trust anything else?

    It's pretty obvious the purpose of these tests is not the weed out the best teachers but to make money for Pearson and continue to undermine public education until they finally convince enough of the public to fully privatize it, and deny a quality education to all but the wealthiest or a chosen few. As the song goes, "Don't know what you got 'til it's gone."

  7. 100% Pearson is trying to bank off of everyone. All these exams are rigged. I failed the CST multi subject exam 4 times already and taking it again next Tuesday. It's funny though, because the last two times I took this test, on the written response part I basically wrote the same exact essay, failed brutally the first time and scored high the second time. Not sure who is grading these exams but it's a scam and at this rate I will never become certified. I still have the EdTPA left...SO EXCITING..CANT WAIT TO FAIL! It's honestly upsetting at this point, took me a long time to get here and I can't pass by 6 points. This sucks!

  8. I am taking the ALST Friday and been looking through my practice book. How os pride and prejudice an elementary level text I need to be able to dissect and analyze?!? Please tell me these tests have improved since 2014/15. I am a crappy test taker and super nervous!! Been teaching for 10 years and moving to NYC. Hoping this won't harm my chances of that actually happening