Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science:

2011 Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


The state should ensure that science teachers know all the subject matter they are licensed to teach.

Meets in part
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2011). Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science: Alabama results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from:

Analysis of Alabama's policies

Secondary science teachers in Alabama have the option of a comprehensive teaching license with a specialization in general science. These candidates must take a minimum of one course in each of the specified areas included in the comprehensive teaching field—namely biology, chemistry, physics, and earth and space science—and they are required to pass the Praxis II "General Science" content test. Teachers with this license are not limited to teaching general science but rather can teach any of the topical areas.

Middle school science teachers have two options: either a comprehensive teaching license with a specialization in general science or one in a single teaching field. Commendably, candidates are also required to pass the Praxis II "Middle School Science" test. 


Recommendations for Alabama

Require secondary science teachers to pass tests of content knowledge for each science discipline they intend to teach.
States that allow general science certifications—and only require a general knowledge science exam—are not ensuring that these secondary teachers possess adequate subject-specific content knowledge. Alabama's required assessment combines all subject areas (e.g., biology, chemistry, physics) and does not report separate scores for each subject area. Therefore, candidates could answer many—perhaps all—chemistry questions, for example, incorrectly yet still be licensed to teach chemistry to high school students.

State response to our analysis

Alabama recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis. The state added that it provides a general science option at both the middle and secondary levels to meet the needs of schools that cannot afford to employ a full-time chemistry or physics teacher who would carry less than a full teaching load. Program completion requires a "pure" arts and sciences-type major in one area of science, which includes at least 32 semester hours of credit with at least 19 semester hours of upper-division credit, in addition to courses in other areas of science needed to document compliance with the general rules for all science teaching fields and the rules specific to general science. Candidates must also pass the Praxis II General Science test.

Alabama also noted that it provides options in the specific disciplines of biology, chemistry and physics and requires a passing score on those subject-specific Praxis II tests. Program-completion requirements are similar to those stated above. 

Last word

There is no doubt that districts, especially small and/or rural districts, appreciate the flexibility offered by the general science certificate. The state need not do away with this license but rather change its requirements to ensure that a teacher with such a license has the requisite knowledge and skills to teach all included subjects. There are also other ways to address situations where a full-time teacher might not be needed without sacrificing teacher content knowledge, including distance and blending learning or a part-time adjunct license as described in Goal 2-D. 

How we graded

Specialized science teachers are not interchangeable.

Based on their high school science licensure requirements, many states seem to presume that it is all the same to teach anatomy, electrical currents and Newtonian physics. Most states allow teachers to obtain general science or combination licenses across multiple science disciplines, and, in most cases, these teachers need only pass a general knowledge science exam that does not ensure subject-specific content knowledge.  This means that a teacher with a background in biology could be fully certified to teach advanced chemistry or physics having passed only a general science test—and perhaps answering most of the chemistry or physics questions incorrectly.  
There is no doubt that districts appreciate the flexibility that these broad field licenses offer, especially given the very real shortage of teachers of many science disciplines.  But the all-purpose science teacher not only masks but perpetuates the STEM crisis—and does so at the expense of students.  There are strategies that districts and states can pursue to improve the pipeline of science teachers—strategies such as UTEACH that use technology, distance learning and alternate routes into STEM fields.  

Middle school science teachers must know middle grade-level science.  

Many states require that middle school teachers pass a multiple-subject general knowledge test.  Teacher candidates need only achieve an overall passing score, meaning that  it could be possible to answer most—perhaps all, given the low cut scores in some states—science questions incorrectly and still pass.  Such tests are problematic at the elementary level, as they may mask serious weaknesses in teachers' content knowledge.  But at the middle school level the tests are even more flawed, since teachers may not even be generalists.  Science may be the only subject a middle school teacher teaches, and yet her license offers no assurance that she knows the material she is teaching.  

Research rationale

For an examination of how science teacher preparation positively impacts student achievement, see Goldhaber, D., & Brewer, D. (2000). Does teacher certification matter? High school certification status and student achievement, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 22, 129-145; Monk, D. (1994). Subject area preparation of secondary mathematics and science teachers and student achievement, Economics of Education Review, 12(2):125-145; Rothman, A., (1969). Teacher characteristics and student learning. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 6(4), 340-348.  

See also, NCTQ "The All-Purpose Science Teacher: An Analysis of Loopholes in State Requirements for High School Science Teachers."(2010). 

In addition, research studies have demonstrated the positive impact of teacher content knowledge on student achievement.  For example, see D. Goldhaber, "Everyone's Doing It, But What Does Teacher Testing Tell Us About Teacher Effectiveness?" Journal of Human Resources, vol. XLII no.4 (2007).  See also Harris, D., and Sass, T., "Teacher Training, Teacher Quality and Student Achievement". Teacher Quality Research (2007). Evidence can also be found in White, Presely, DeAngelis "Leveling up: Narrowing the teacher academic capital gap in Illinois," Illinois Education Research Council (2008); D. Goldhaber and D. Brewer, "Why Don't Schools and Teachers Seem to Matter? Assessing the impact of Unobservables on Educational Productivity." Journal of Human Resources (1998).