Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science:

Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


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

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

Analysis of Illinois's policies

Illinois commendably requires secondary science teacher candidates to earn a specific subject-area designation (e.g., biology, physics) as part of the broad-field science endorsement. In addition to completing 32 semester hours of coursework, candidates must also pass the state's ICTS subject-specific content test. Regrettably, Illinois allows these candidates to teach all areas of science at the general level, regardless of the specific designation. However, to teach honors or AP classes, science teachers must have the designation in that particular area. 

Middle school science teachers in Illinois must earn an endorsement in biological science, general science or physical science. They are required to complete at least 18 semester hours of coursework but are not required to pass a subject-specific content test. Further, Illinois allows middle school teachers to teach on a generalist K-9 license (see Goal 1-E).


Recommendations for Illinois

Require secondary science teachers to pass tests of content knowledge for each science discipline they intend to teach.
Although Illinois's policy ensures that science teachers who teach upper-level courses possess adequate subject matter knowledge, it falls short when it comes to general-level courses. A biology teacher, having only passed the state's biology content test, could go on to teach chemistry and physics—just not at the honors or AP level. The state should ensure that all students, not only those in advanced classes, have teachers with sufficient and appropriate content knowledge.  

Require middle school science teachers to pass a test of content knowledge that ensures sufficient knowledge of science.

State response to our analysis

Illinois recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis. The state added that it is in the process of developing science standards for middle grades, and it will also require separate content tests for middle grades science once the new rules are written. Illinois plans to work with secondary programs once other areas are complete. 

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).