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Too Much Leeway in Science Teacher Standards, NCTQ Alleges

States permit high school science teachers to hold general science credentials or demonstrate subject-matter competency through a general science-content test, rather than show that they have mastered their specific discipline by passing a rigorous exam, argues an analysis released today by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Only 11 states require high school science teachers to hold credentials and pass tests specifically in their scientific discipline, such as biology, chemistry, or physics, the analysis says. Those states are Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, and Virginia.

A handful of other states have taken steps to move in a similar direction but could benefit from some tightening, the council asserts. And a majority of states simply have a general science teacher credential, endorsement, and/or test, the analysis states.

General science tests like the Praxis II are particularly problematic, the council says, because depending on where the state sets the cutoff score on the exam, it might be possible for a teacher to fail all the physics questions on the test, for instance, but still pass and therefore be deemed eligible to teach physics.

The reason? Probably a misguided sense of trying to give rural or challenging schools more flexibility in hiring teachers in this subject area, the report contends.

So why is a content test so important if a teacher already has a degree in, say, biology? According to Sandi Jacobs, the vice president over at NCTQ, a test is the only real way that a state can ensure a teacher has broad knowledge of his or her discipline, absent other measures of effectiveness. Coursework, she said, isn't a good proxy given that states' requirements are so varied and tend to give students so much choice over what they take.

Here's one question I had for Jacobs: Research on elementary teacher content tests suggests they are not that great of a predictor of teacher effectiveness. That is, while there's some evidence that they can predict who will do well in the classroom, they also screen out a fair number of teachers who would have gone on to be "effective" teachers and permit other ones who wound up being less effective to enter classrooms. As far as I'm aware, there hasn't been analogous research done on secondary teacher content tests, but it's reasonable to assume there might be a similar problem.

"As we look at single-subject tests, we absolutely do have to be mindful of those issues," Jacobs agreed.

In any case, the paper has implications for federal policy. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all core academic classes must be taught by a "highly qualified" teacher, but the law merely mentions "science" as a field and does not define it further. And guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Education explicitly says that states can use general science licensing regimes to meet the HQT mandate. That probably should be tightened up in reauthorization, Jacobs said.

This is an area where there isn't a lot of agreement about how policies should be designed, and NCTQ has set one benchmark. But surely a case could be made for other ones. Do you agree or disagree with the council's standard and ratings? Write in and let us know.

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