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: Wisconsin results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from:

Analysis of Wisconsin's policies

Wisconsin offers a broad-field science license for secondary teachers. To qualify, candidates must complete a science program major or a major in physical science (combo of physics and chemistry), earth and space science, or life and environmental science (a combo of biology and environmental studies). The science program must include competencies in each of these subcategories with a concentration in at least one. Regardless of science license (broad field, biology, chemistry, earth and space science, life and environmental science, physics or physical science), the state only requires candidates to pass the Praxis II "General Science" content assessment. Teachers with this license are not limited to teaching general science but rather can teach any of the topical areas.

Although the state's secondary license applies to children ages 10-21, Wisconsin also offers a "middle childhood through early adolescence level (MC-EA)" license for middle school science teachers, which is the equivalent of a generalist 1-8 license. These candidates are required to complete a minor in a content-related area and pass the Praxis II "Middle School" content test, which combines all subject areas.


Recommendations for Wisconsin

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. Wisconsin's required general assessment combines 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

Wisconsin asserted that in December 2010, new rule revisions went into effect allowing professional educators to add licenses in a related subject area by demonstrating content knowledge through a test. The state superintendent has selected subject-specific tests for each of these licenses, and information on the new exams will be available as soon as passing scores are set. Wisconsin anticipated posting this information in September 2011. 

Wisconsin also pointed out that it is a member of the Council of Chief State School Officers' State Collaborative on Assessment and Student Standards (SCASS) for science and will provide review and feedback of the next generation of science standards. The state anticipates following the same model for reviewing, adopting and implementing when these standards are available: "This will set into motion a review of our educator preparation program content guidelines and our content testing requirements for science licenses." 

Last word

According to both the state's website and ETS, the testing requirements outlined in the analysis are still in effect. 

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).