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February 21, 2002

Pitt education students fare well on teachers' competency exams

A report released last month by the state's Bureau of Teacher Certification and Preparation (BTCP) cited low passing rates in certain required competency tests taken for the first time by the state's prospective elementary and secondary school teachers.

The report suggested that the state's institutions of higher learning are at fault for poorly preparing their students.

But School of Education Dean Alan Lesgold said Pitt is not part of the problem. Pitt education students who took the tests last year did far better than the state averages of first-time test-takers on virtually every test.

Lesgold, however, cautioned not to compare apples with oranges.

The BTCP results, compiled by the state, record scores (either pass or fail) of those taking the tests last year for the first time regardless of their educational status. Anyone can take the tests, not just those who are in graduate education programs such as Pitt's. In fact, many students take the basic competency tests as part of the graduate admissions process, something Pitt plans to start requiring next year.

Lesgold said there are plenty of examples how first-time test-takers give a distorted view of the quality of teacher preparation, especially at a selective school such as Pitt.

"Suppose you're a college sophomore, and your adviser says you'll have a better chance to get into an education school if you pass some of the requirements beforehand," the dean said. "You take one of these tests, fail it miserably, and you decide not to go into education at all; that appears as a failed test score [on the BTCP report]. Or, you can take it again, and pass it prior to education school admission and that would not be reflected on the first-time scores although you've demonstrated competency."

To date, Lesgold said, Pitt has strongly encouraged that applicants pass the competency tests prior to admission to most of its programs. But Pitt plans to make this a requirement for most applicants starting this fall. "We may admit someone provisionally, and ask that they pass the tests before the start of the program to gain full status," Lesgold said.

He noted that the competency tests are only one indicator that point to good teacher preparation. (See story on page 5.) Pitt reports test scores of its currently enrolled students as required under Title II of the 1998 amendments of the federal Higher Education Act.

Last year, Pitt education students scored an equal or higher passing rate than the state average of the 92 teacher preparation programs in 16 of the 17 tests in subjects for which Pitt offers teacher preparation. That included a 100 percent passing rate on 12 of the 17 tests, and no passing rate lower than 91 percent.

Of the 1,881 Pitt scores on the exams last year, only 45 were not passing. (Most students took more than one test.) "Our scores are amazingly good, even when compared to those schools we consider our competitors," Lesgold said. Pitt's competitors include the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, Lehigh, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Duquesne and Temple, he said.

The dean suggested three reasons for Pitt education students' high passing rates. "First, we have the post-baccalaureate program, so that our students generally know the subject matter they're going to teach by the time they get to us, and they've earned a bachelor's in that area. Second, we've always had a relatively high admissions threshold, so we're getting many of the best students and, third, we have a very high-quality faculty here."

According to Jeff McCloud, deputy press secretary for the state Department of Education, practically anyone can take the basic competency tests, a necessary hurdle for earning teacher certification and sometimes a requirement for education school admission. Tests can be taken any number of times.

In addition to demonstrating basic skills in reading, writing and math, passing a competency subject-area test is required for state teaching certification in that subject (except for "emergency exemptions" granted by the state to mitigate teacher shortages).

General knowledge also is measured, and knowledge of pedagogy is measured for those seeking instructional certificates in, for example, elementary education, a foreign language or music. Additionally, there is a detailed measurement of the subject matter that the candidate will teach, the BTCP report said.

Overall, about 55,000 tests in 58 areas (56 specialty areas and 2 core battery tests) were administered to first-time test takers last year, the BTCP report said.

"Most of this testing stuff is an intuitively reasonable response to an entirely legitimate demand for accountability — by parents, by the state, by lawmakers who give the school funding — but it doesn't always work the way people intend it," Lesgold said.

"I think there's been a lot of confusion over this," he continued. "People feel that if we have enough restrictions on the input side, we will be guaranteeing that we have enough talent on the output side. It certainly fails if the restrictions we put on the input side prevent a lot of people from becoming teachers who would be good teachers, especially when you don't have enough good teachers to go around."

Even the U.S. Department of Education cautions about reading too much into the Title II test results. According to a press release accompanying the Title II scores report issued last November: "Some schools use tests as criteria for admission to teacher education programs, while others use the same test to determine when students are ready for practice teaching and still others use the test as a graduation requirement."

(Title II-mandated test scores of all 50 states are available at "One problem is that I don't think people differentiate very well when they hear these claims about teacher competency," Lesgold said. "They'll say, 'The education system is terrible. Boy, they can't even add and subtract,' and they don't pay attention to whether that's said about existing teachers, or what kind of program the people came from. There are 92 schools that certify teachers in this state, and not all of them are quite at the level of Pitt. If you take an empirical look at the numbers, it shows that."

–Peter Hart

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