Once again, Massachusetts, the leader among states in education reform, is the target of potshots as it implements rigorous teacher licensing tests.
For years Massachusetts followed a standard practice of other states that tells a lot about why American students perform so poorly in mathematics: Give prospective elementary teachers a "general curricula" test that includes a math section with problems that just about any 6th grader could answer. Set the minimum score needed to pass so low that a teacher passes even with most of the math problems wrong, provided the candidate does well enough on the rest of the test.
As is the state's wont, a few years ago it decided "enough." This year, the Massachusetts Test for Education Licensure (MTEL) test series includes a stand-alone exam for prospective elementary teachers of appropriately challenging math problems.
The new math test debuted in March with a poor, but unsurprising outcome: of the 600 test-takers, only 27 percent scored high enough to obtain licensure. This appallingly low passing rate prompted creation of a temporary grace period by Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, allowing teachers scoring just below the cut score threshold to get initial certification provided they pass the test within five years. Lowering the bar bumped the passage rate to only a slightly less grim 42 percent. Lest you think that Massachusetts is going overboard, take a look at a few sample questions to see that while the test is not a cakewalk, it doesn't reach the level of rocket science.
If history or current events is any guide, a lawsuit on the math test will soon be filed by disgruntled test-takers. Massachusetts is already in court fighting a lawsuit on another licensing test, a communications and literacy test that must be taken by teachers at both the elementary and secondary level. Low passage rates for minorities have spurred allegations that the test is biased against non-native speakers. Even as the court considers the case, the state plans to roll out a new communications exam in September 2009. Something tells us that this new exam will not placate critics.