Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science:

Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


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

Meets in part
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2013). Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science: Utah results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from:

Analysis of Utah's policies

Utah does not offer a general science certification for secondary science teachers. However, the state does offer a physical science endorsement. Candidates are required to pass the Praxis II Physical Science test.


Recommendations for Utah

Require secondary science teachers to pass a content test for each discipline they are licensed to teach.
States that allow combination licenses across multiple science disciplines—and require only a comprehensive content test—are not ensuring that these secondary teachers possess adequate subject-specific content knowledge. Utah's required assessment combines both physics and chemistry and does not report separate scores for each subject. Therefore, a candidate could answer many physics questions, for example, incorrectly on the combination content test yet still be licensed to teach physics to high school students.

State response to our analysis

Utah recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis. The state added that the physical science endorsement referenced in the analysis does qualify a teacher to provide instruction in basic chemistry and physics courses as described in the report. However, teachers with this endorsement may not provide instruction in either the advanced placement or concurrent enrollment versions of either chemistry or physics. This flexibility is intended to aid scheduling in rural areas as well as help to create smaller class sizes in introductory chemistry and physics courses. 

Utah also noted that its licensure requirements for science teachers are intended to balance high standards for teachers and flexibility for districts, particularly rural districts, in meeting the hiring needs in an area that is consistently one of the most critical teacher-shortage areas in the state.  As in all areas, quality evaluation and employment decisions of the building principal, in addition to state licensure requirements, are vitally important to ensuring that every student has a highly effective teacher. 

Last word

NCTQ is not advocating against general science teachers and can see why such a certification is particularly advantageous for rural areas. However, secondary-level students need teachers who are well prepared to teach advanced subject matter, and requiring passing scores on a content test for each discipline that teacher candidates are licensed to teach is the only way to ensure adequate subject-matter knowledge. 

Research rationale

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.  States need either to make sure that general science teachers are indeed prepared to teach any of the subjects covered under that license or allow only single subject science certifications.  In either case states need to consider strategies to improve the pipeline of science teachers, including the use of technology, distance learning and alternate routes into STEM fields. 

Secondary Teacher Preparation in Science: Supporting Research

For an examination of how science teacher preparation positively impacts student achievement, see D. Goldhaber and D. Brewer, "Does Teacher Certification Matter? High School Teacher Certification Status and Student Achievement", Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Volume 22, No. 2, June 20, 2000, pp. 129-145; D. Monk, "Subject area preparation of secondary mathematics and science teachers and student achievement", Economics of Education Review, Volume 13, No. 2, June 1994, pp.125-145; A. Rothman, "Teacher characteristics and student learning". Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Volume 6, No. 4, December 1969, pp. 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,Volume 42, No. 4, Fall 2007, pp. 765-794.  See also D. Harris and T. Sass, "Teacher Training, Teacher Quality, and Student Achievement". Calder Institute,March 2007, Working Paper 3. Evidence can also be found in B. White, J. Presely, and K. DeAngelis, "Leveling Up: Narrowing the Teacher Academic Capital Gap in Illinois", Illinois Education Research Council, Policy Research Report: IERC 2008-1, 44 p.; 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, Volume 32, No. 3, Summer 1997, pp. 505-523.