THIS SPRING, Massachusetts administered its first statewide test for candidates hoping to teach in the public schools. The recent announcement of the results has provoked astonishment and outrage.
Almost 60 percent of the candidates failed. Thirty percent failed a basic test in reading and writing, and the failure rate on subject-matter tests varied from 63 percent in mathematics to 18 percent in physical education.When the results were published, the reactions were predictable: approval from those appalled by the decline in the quality of public schools and howls of complaint from education professionals, including college professors, deans and college presidents.
The greatest controversy surrounded the results of the reading and writing test, since literacy is the essential requirement for the teaching of any subject.
It should not be thought that this examination was excessively demanding. In one section of the test, a short paragraph from the Federalist Papers was slowly read aloud three times as candidates wrote it down.
How could educated people fail to copy accurately what they had heard? It wasn't easy, but scores of applicants managed, recording broken sentences and curious new spellings such as "improbally," "corupt," "integraty," "bouth" (meaning both), "bodyes" and "relif."
The writing test also required the candidates to read two extended passages. They were asked to write a summary of the first and to compose responses to the second, which was an essay on a controversial subject.
The casualties here included grammar, syntax, diction, spelling and logic. Neo-spellings included "belive," "refere," "bured" (burned), "survalence," "serch-ing," "decress"(meaning reduce), "messures" and "invation." (Dan Quayle can relax: He would pass this test with flying colors.)
Some of the sentences would provide material for Jay Leno: "This method of observation should not be aloud under any cercumstances." "They felt their right to privacy was being impared upon."
No responsible person would subject anyone's children, much less his own, to such teachers.
The dismal results have led some to fault the test, claiming it had not been validated. In fact, it was validated by the teachers and scholars who prepared it, all experts in the areas being tested. Whenever they found a question to be defective, they proposed alternatives. When important issues or concepts were missing, the advisers added them.
The exams were validated again by the panels of distinguished teachers, administrators and college professors who reviewed the questions for fairness and agreed on minimal passing scores. For example, to pass the various sections of the reading and writing test, applicants needed to get 71 to 78 percent of the answers right, a "C" average.
Some critics have said the tests were racially biased. The statistics show otherwise: 21 percent of blacks, 23 percent of Asians, 24 percent of Hispanics and 31 percent of whites were successful in answering 89 percent or more of the items correctly. These variations are insignificant, and the slightly higher success rate for whites can more than adequately be explained by socioeconomic factors.
Others objected that no test can prove that a person will be a good teacher. True enough. But the failure to pass a test can prove that one is incompetent to teach. One cannot competently teach what one does not know.
Another objection was that no study guide was provided. But why should those qualified to become professional teachers need a guide on how to study for a test in English or in a basic subject in which they have specialized?
The results were not surprising because they are similar to those in other states where comparable tests have been given. The controversy over the test has obscured the real story, which is that so many prospective public school teachers failed a test that a bright 10th-grader could pass without difficulty.
This is a telling indictment of higher education in America. Professors routinely complain about the illiteracy of freshmen. Many other instructors, however, contribute to the problem by being overly generous in their grading. Grade inflation has reached the point where even outstanding students accepted at the best law schools are often deficient in writing skills and need remedial courses.
Nowhere are standards lower than in schools of education. In 1997, the average combined SAT score for all students was 1,016. But those hoping to become teachers scored only 964, 5.1 percent below the national average.
By raising, over 20 years, the average score of entering education fresh-men to 1,227 - 20 percent above the national average - Boston University was forced to reduce the freshman class from 400 to 100 and forfeited about $35 million in lost tuition. Few colleges and universities are willing to pay so steep a price to uphold standards.
One way to compensate for low scores among prospective teachers is to offer extensive remedial work and impose rigorous standards. But that rigor is rarely found in schools of education. On the contrary, most have standards so low that they repel the highly qualified students who are desperately needed in our schools.
Few intelligent people are so dedicated to teaching that they will endure the mindless courses and textbooks in schools of education. Grading there is typically easy, and many graduates of these programs are ill prepared for the profession of their choice.
America became a literate country before there were any schools of education. We would be justified in demanding that schools of education either raise their standards or shut their doors.