Unpacking Secondary Certification: How States Fail Licensing Tests

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This is the third of a four-part series exploring secondary certifications, state licensing tests, and the subject matter preparation that teacher prep programs provide future high school teachers. Part one examined the two types of certifications and the courses that can be taught with each. Part two focused on the available science and social studies certifications across the country. This third installment considers the content knowledge tests states typically require of new teachers.

As has been previously detailed, secondary certification is a hot mess, and looking at state-mandated licensing tests adds yet another layer of complexity. While content knowledge tests may seem a trivial pursuit, they are critically important, serving as the last chance to ensure that aspiring teachers know the material they're going to teach.

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia require secondary teacher candidates to pass content knowledge tests in the time between completing a teacher prep program and being granted certification by the state.

Traditional Path to Secondary Teacher Certification

This straightforward process helps ensure that aspiring teachers have the necessary content knowledge before they take the reins of their own classroom. However, states frequently undermine this orderly process by requiring licensing tests that do not adequately measure content knowledge.

What makes a test inadequate? Let's start by considering two certifications: Biology and General Science.

Typical Path to Biology Certification

In the case of biology, each step in the process makes sense – an aspiring biology teacher completes the equivalent of a major in biology, passes a licensing test about biology, receives state certification in biology, and finally is ready to be hired as a biology teacher. In short, they know biology, proved their knowledge, and now can teach what they know. The licensing test required here is perfectly aligned with the teaching position.

However, this is not the case when looking at General Science certification.

Typical Path to General Science Certification

While everything may look similar to the biology example, the general science licensing test is problematic. Too often, an aspiring teacher takes a single test with only a few questions on each subject they would be certified to teach. More critically, only one score is reported for the entire test. This makes is possible for an aspiring teacher to perform very poorly on the physics questions, for example, but score well enough on the rest of the test to pass and subsequently be hired to teach physics. In other words, this licensing test makes it possible for teachers to be fully licensed in and teach a subject they don't know.

There is one exception. Missouri breaks from this stand-alone test model and requires aspiring teachers pursuing Unified Science certification to pass separate tests in biology, chemistry, earth science, and physics.

Missouri's Path to Unified Science Certification

In addition to inadequate tests for certifications that allow teachers to teach multiple subjects, we found inadequate tests for some single-subject certifications (certifications that limit instruction to one subject).

An example from social studies certifications will illustrate: instead of requiring licensing tests specifically tailored to individual subjects, South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin require candidates pursuing certification in history, economics, or political science/government to pass a general social studies content knowledge test, rather than one specifically on their certification area.

That is, instead of aspiring economics teachers taking a licensing test specific to economics, in these states they take a test with only 15 percent of the total questions focused on economics. This again creates the problem of having too few questions to evaluate content knowledge while not even reporting separately on the results on the economics portion of the test.

While the possibility that a teacher could teach without adequate content knowledge is alarming, the good news here is that each state has the power to fix licensing test requirements. States relying on general content knowledge tests for general science and social studies certification should follow Missouri's lead and require licensing tests that independently evaluate content knowledge in all subjects a teacher will be certified to teach.

South Carolina, Utah, and Wisconsin can change their licensing test requirements to take advantage of the single-subject tests that are already out there. Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wyoming – states that either don't require licensing tests or don't require teachers to pass them before entering the classroom – can follow the lead of every other state and use licensing tests as a guardrail to ensure there is a knowledgeable teacher in every classroom. Otherwise, this smoldering pile may turn into a full-blown dumpster fire.