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Date: March 27, 2001
Contacts: Vanee Vines, Media Relations Associate
Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant
(202) 334-2138; e-mail <>


Licensure Exams Play Limited Role In Boosting Teacher Quality WASHINGTON -- Tests currently used to evaluate the skills and capabilities of prospective elementary and secondary schoolteachers should not be the only means of sizing up candidates, says a new report from the National Research Council of the National Academies. Although results from such licensure tests can provide important information about basic qualifications, they are an inadequate basis for determining who would be an excellent classroom teacher.

The report emphasizes that effective teaching is a demanding and complex job that depends on many factors, including the availability and quality of instructional resources, professional-development opportunities, and support from administrators and parents.

"When screening teacher candidates, greater attention should be paid to factors that more directly relate to student learning," said David Z. Robinson, chair of the committee that wrote the report and a former executive vice president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, New York City. "A variety of assessment methods should be used, including evaluations of candidates' teaching performance and of their ability to work effectively with a diverse student population. Licensure tests should be only one part of a coherent system that gauges teachers' everyday practice in multiple ways."

With the attention of many federal and state policy-makers focused on K-12 education reform, the issue of using licensure tests to identify qualified teachers has attracted increased interest. More than 40 states require prospective teachers to pass one or more tests to obtain their initial teaching license. Some states also use licensure tests as admission exams for undergraduate teacher-education programs, as a prerequisite for student teaching, and as a condition for graduation.

On the whole, the tests can provide some useful information. But they are designed to assess competence in a narrow set of skills and to make a crude split between prospective teachers who are unqualified and those who are minimally qualified. Because data are lacking on the issue of how accurately these tests differentiate among candidates with varying levels of competence, and on how test scores might relate to other important indicators of relevant knowledge and skill, the committee urged caution in relying on existing tests to spur educational improvement.

Despite their limitations, however, these tests often are used for broad purposes that go beyond licensure -- such as holding teacher-education programs accountable for the quality of their graduates, or adjusting minimum passing scores. For instance, the 1998 federal Teacher Quality Enhancement Act requires states to identify teacher-preparation programs that underperform based on their students' overall passing rates on the exams. Poor scores could cause a state to end official recognition of particular programs or withdraw financial support -- measures that could put federal aid in jeopardy. And some states have raised minimum passing scores in an attempt to elevate standards for prospective teachers. But federal and state policy-makers should not use only passing rates on licensure tests to judge or compare teacher-education programs, the committee said. Nor should policy-makers use passing rates as the sole basis for withholding funds, imposing other sanctions, or even rewarding programs. When making appraisals, officials at all levels should examine a variety of data on a range of program characteristics that include test scores as well as other information about the performance of teacher candidates and program graduates.

Likewise, the report notes that improvements in the quality and size of the teacher applicant pool hinge on many variables, such as recruiting efforts, other licensing requirements, labor-market forces, salaries, and working conditions. Furthermore, raising cut-off scores may reduce racial diversity within the field of new teachers, given that passing rates for minority candidates currently tend to be lower than those of nonminorities.

When considering whether to raise minimum passing scores, states should examine not only the impact on teacher competence, but also the effects on the overall supply of new teachers and on the diversity of the teaching work force, the committee said. In addition, states should take into account scientific data regarding the reliability, validity, and cost of licensure tests whenever policy-makers develop or evaluate them. States and test developers also should make technical documentation available to researchers, the general public, and others in accordance with professional standards of practice.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, N.J., and National Evaluation Systems Inc. (NES), based in Amherst, Mass., develop the vast majority of licensure tests, which number in the hundreds across the country. Using scientific criteria, the committee evaluated a sample of five widely used licensure exams produced by ETS and found their technical quality to be generally sound. NES did not provide the committee with enough information about its exams to evaluate them, nor did the states using NES tests.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education. The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.
Read the full text of Testing Teacher Candidates: The Role of Licensure Tests in Improving Teacher Quality for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).

Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education Division
Board on Testing and Assessment

Committee on Assessment and Teacher Quality

David Z. Robinson (chair)
Executive Vice President and Treasurer
Carnegie Corp. of New York (retired)
New York City

Carl A. Grant
Hoefs-Bascom Professor of Teacher Education
Department of Teacher Education, and
Professor of Afro-American Studies
University of Wisconsin

Milton D. Hakel
Professor and Ohio Board of Regents Eminent
Scholar in Psychology
Department of Psychology
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio

Linda Darling-Hammond
Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Teaching and Teacher Education
School of Education
Stanford University
Stanford, Calif.

Abigail L. Hughes
Associate Commissioner
Division of Evaluation and Research
Connecticut State Department of Education

Mary M. Kennedy
College of Education
Michigan State University
East Lansing

Stephen P. Klein
Senior Research Scientist
RAND Corp.
Santa Monica, Calif.

Catherine Manski
Lecturer and Field Instructor
Department of English
University of Illinois

C. Ford Morishita
Biology Teacher
Clackamas High School
Milwaukie, Ore.

Pamela A. Moss
Associate Professor
School of Education
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor

Barbara Sterrett Plake
Oscar and Luella Buros Center for Testing, and W.C. Meierhenry Distinguished University Professor
University of Nebraska

David L. Rose
Rose and Rose
Washington, D.C.

Portia Holmes Shields
Albany State University
Albany, Ga.

James W. Stigler
Professor of Psychology
Department of Psychology
University of California
Los Angeles

Kenneth I. Wolpin
Lawrence R. Klein Professor of Economics
Department of Economics, and
Institute for Economic Research
University of Pennsylvania


Karen Mitchell
Study Director