Cut-Rate Reforms in Virginia

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There?s nothing but bad news on the teacher quality front this week, mostly of states? own making. We?ve adopted our own highly original rating system, Rotten Apples (schools?apples?get it?), to rate the developments this week.

The state of Virginia gets a score of 2 rotten apples with news that its state board of education is shamelessly considering lowering the score its teachers need to pass the Praxis I, the nation?s most popular licensing test for assessing knowledge of basic skills. The board is making this move, it says, in response to recommendations it has received from ETS, the company that owns the test.

ETS requires that states using its licensing tests set their own passing scores--basically so that the company does not have to deal with the inevitable lawsuits generated by unhappy teachers who fail the test. Consequently, there is huge variance in the passing scores, ranging from states that are willing to license teachers who cannot multiply 9 x 8 or recognize a verb to those that at least insist upon some knowledge of pre-algebra and recognition of an adjective.

There's a lot of pressure on states that set higher scores to bend to the middle for the simple reason that states convince themselves they?ll lose teachers to states with lower standards. State policymakers insist that their hands are forced by supposed teacher shortages. This is a disingenuous claim, given that only a few states are making more than a half-hearted effort to cultivate more fertile alternative sources of new teachers that do not necessitate lowering academic standards. Our cynical guess is that states are really responding to pressure from the many low-performing schools of ed that can't graduate enough teachers who know the 3R's.

And that is just what appears to be happening in Virginia. Supporters of the move contend that cutting the test scores will allow Virginia to stay competitive with neighboring states. Thin attempts are being made to defend the move such as a remark made by Princess Moss, president of the Virginia Education Association, who argued that lowering the scores removes the burden of performing well on the exam for teachers who don?t teach a core subject. If the board really thought that was the problem, they could just as easily set two scores, one for teachers of core subjects and a lower one for others?but that's not what they're doing.

Of the 28 states that currently require ETS's Praxis I exam, Virginia has, up until now, been able to boast the highest passing score. However, this boast rarely mentioned two important facts: first, the Old Dominion State doesn?t make teachers pass this easy test until after four years of college, and second, even if teachers don?t pass the exam they can work for up to three years in the classroom before licensure is denied. By contrast, most states using the Praxis I require teachers to take the test as college freshmen before they can even be admitted to a school of education.

We held off on assigning 3 apples to the Old Dominion State, hoping that the state board will show some backbone and vote down the measure.