moteachcert copyAt the June State Board of Education meeting, the board members heard a presentation by DESE on the new teacher licensure exam, the Missouri Educator Gateway Assessment. This is a series of fifty five specific content area exams which teachers can take to receive a state teaching certificate. They replace the old Praxis exams that many teachers are familiar with. The Praxis was dropped last year as the state’s certification exam and replaced with Pearson’s test which is, surprise surprise, more aligned with Common Core. But that’s not where the trouble really lies. A large number of  teachers failed the new MEGAs which has caused some concern about the availability of new certified teachers, now known as highly qualified teachers, which districts need in order to score points on the Missouri School Improvement Plan (MSIP).

Professor Nicole Nickens, Department Chair of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at the University of Central Missouri, correctly noted, in a Kansas City Star article, that such high failure rates could be due to two possible causes. “When a test produces a very high fail rate, a good educator doesn’t say, “My students are all stupid,” but rather, “I did not adequately help my students understand this content” or “This instrument is not a valid measure of the content/skills I intended to measure.” She concludes, correctly, that the high MEGA failure rate is due more to the latter than the former.

It is important to understand a little of the background of these tests and how Missouri is handling them. A number of Content Advisory Committees of teachers were assembled to look at the question bank that Pearson had for each content area. They selected the questions they believed were the best measure of a teacher’s knowledge. In many cases there were only a few questions they accepted under the criteria they established for selection. Some tests had very few questions, one as low as 18 total questions with a “pass rate” pegged at 14 correct answers. Tells you a little something about the quality of the Pearson test bank. The content certification exams therefore become a unique product to Missouri. There are no larger data samples we can use to set cut scores.

The various committees established a temporary proficiency cut score for each specific content exam which they may choose to modify based on the scores achieved by the test takers. There is wide variation between exams on where the proficiency score has been set. At the SBE meeting it was noted that, for some of the content areas, there were very few teachers who actually took the test. One area had only 7 test takers. With such low sample numbers it is statistically impossible to draw any conclusions about the validity of the test or know whether the cut score is reasonable.

Therein lies Missouri’s problem. We haven’t had, statistically speaking, a whole lot of test takers. Over the 55 exams, we have had only a little more than 7,000 takers. Those are not spread evenly across the various content areas. As noted previously, some sample sizes for a specific test are very low so we really cannot draw any conclusions about whether the test is a good measure in general, or whether it contains bias for certain sub groups.  And since it bears no resemblance to our former test, any other state test, and we have no teachers with serious classroom experience after taking the test, we don’t know whether it is a good predictor of teacher qualification.

Here’s the kicker, and the problem for Commissioner Vandeven. Missouri has been granting teaching certificates for these areas since December 2014 based on these temporary (meaning the SBE has not officially approved these recommendations) cut scores, on a test which has no demonstrated validity.

At the same time, state teaching colleges were getting the message that their teaching curriculum was not up to snuff based on very faulty data. DESE attempted to explain away the low scores hinting that we may be weeding out the weak teachers with the new assessment. John Martin agreed with this statement, lamenting that teaching is no longer a respected profession because “it used to be hard to get into.” Then in a whiplash inducing line of logic he sited Teach For America as an organization who was helping to reverse that trend.  “TFA sets a high bar,” he claimed.

The TFA model does not support or enhance the teaching profession. They do not work with teachers colleges to improve their programs. They poach students from other subject majors, give them a quick five week boot camp on teaching, and strong arm states (many of which don’t have a teacher shortage)  into putting their recruits into some of the toughest districts. They also don’t work to encourage their recruits to stay in the teaching profession. Many go on to administrative of policy positions after their two year stint in TFA. Martin must be unfamiliar with the Harvard University student group United Students Against Sweatshops which was pushing Harvard to end its relationship with TFA. In a well researched and cogent letter to Wendy Kopp (Founder), Elisa Villanueva Beard, and Matt Kramer (CEOs) of TFA they stated,

“Across the nation, students are standing up to demand that our universities stop propping up TFA. Without our universities’ involvement as “alternative certifiers” for TFA as required under federal and state law, without our special scholarships for TFA alumni, and without our blind institutional promotion for their recruiting, and other special partnerships, TFA cannot keep pushing its agenda of dismantling public education.”

Or maybe Martin just agrees with TFA’s agenda.

Meanwhile we have been putting teachers with a questionable rating of highly qualified into districts for almost seven months. Teachers do not have to have these certificates in order to teach in the state, but obviously those who have them are more desirable to districts.  Maynard Wallace noted that it is strictly a district decision which type of teacher they hire. True, but they rely on the state to tell them which ones are best and worth the extra money they will have to pony up for one rated Highly Qualified.

The plan is for the SBE to revisit this issue at their August meeting when DESE hopes to have a whole new crop of teaching graduates who have taken the tests. Peter Herschend said that he plans to trust the experts and “assume the scores are right until they are proven wrong.” In the mean time the state will continue to issue certificates based on the unapproved cut scores. This is what happens when you abandon one test with good historical data that everyone is familiar enough with and has adapted their curriculum to (MAP test) for a brand new one without those benefits (SBAC) and begin making high stakes decisions based on scores from the new one. The state should have continued to the Praxis while they piloted the new MEGA so that a transition could be made with confidence. But since our state isn’t really making the decisions any more, they are taking their marching orders from the feds, we aren’t worried about logical progress, just figuring out which hoop we need to jump through next.
Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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