By Lindsay Jeffers
Tania, an exuberant, creative, and bright African American student, is finally pursuing a career she has always dreamed about, albeit a little later than she anticipated. She enrolled at her university in 2013 as an Elementary Education major and began her coursework. During her sophomore year, Tania took the Professional Readiness Exam (PRE), a standardized test newly adopted by Michigan and also required for admittance into the College of Education. When she did not earn a passing score, she assumed she just wasn’t smart enough to become a teacher and resigned herself to choosing another profession. Tania began coursework in nursing, but it wasn’t her passion, and she confessed to one of her professors that she had always hoped to become a teacher. Her professor convinced her to try the PRE test again, and Tania earned a passing score on her second attempt. She is now back on track to pursue her teaching dream. Unfortunately, the PRE test cost her a few semesters of time and tuition, along with some self-confidence.
In previous posts on this blog, authors have expressed concerns about the excessive and often exclusive use of standardized tests to evaluate students. In “What the Data Won’t Show,” Susan Lazear told the story of Autumn, a big-hearted high school senior who wanted to become a nurse. Autumn was unable to gain her diploma from the state of Virginia until she earned a 400 on the state standardized reading test. She tested over and over again, even after graduation, continually earning scores in the 390s and taking anxiety medications because the tests make her so nervous. Autumn finally passed the test two years later.
Standardized Tests as Gatekeepers
The PRE test, like many standardized tests, acts as a gatekeeper against the racially diverse teachers that we so desperately need. In the state of Michigan, White students are much more likely to pass the PRE standardized tests than African American and Hispanic students. On the writing section, African American students have half the passing rate of White students. The PRE test is a direct roadblock to the Commission on English Education’s call for more diversity in the teaching profession. While no one stands in opposition to high standards for our teachers, there are many reasons to believe the PRE is unfairly denying many hopeful future teachers the opportunity to teach.
Robert Rozema, English Education professor and teacher educator, notes that many of his students are “caught in limbo” due to the PRE test requirement. The PRE has widespread failure rates. Less than 30% of students who tested passed all three components in the first year it was required in Michigan. As a result, a large number of future teachers who have completed coursework and passed Michigan Teacher Certification tests in their subject areas are stuck in a vicious cycle of testing and re-testing on the PRE. Some of these students are paying $29 for Pearson’s practice tests, sometimes also paying for test-preparation courses, and then paying $50 for every re-test. The PRE test has become a major barrier for bright, passionate students who want to teach K-12 children.
A National Problem
In Michigan, a state with highly-regarded teacher education programs, the passing requirement of the Professional Readiness Exam has already caused a 22% decline (in 2014) in the number of prospective teachers enrolling in these programs. While the state faces teacher shortages in a number of critical areas, and especially in urban districts, the number of young, new qualified teacher candidates is decreasing. Because Michigan is historically a “teacher export” state, producing more teachers than it needs and providing teachers to other states, this poses a real threat to education beyond the state of Michigan.
Michigan is not the only state where standardized tests can act as a barrier to the teaching profession. Many states require the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators Test for students wishing to enter a college of education. The Praxis Core test measures reading, writing, and math skills and costs students $150 for one five-hour test. While the Praxis is more widely used, and the pass rate is higher than the PRE, the fact remains that most states are depending on a series of standardized tests to screen future teachers.
Writing Skills and the PRE
Of primary concern in English Education is the teaching of authentic writing. Writing teachers already know that the quality of student writing cannot be assessed by the answering of multiple choice questions. Teacher preparation courses in English departments work with future teachers to help them focus on genre, audience, and purpose. (See Jonathan Bush’s post for an example of genre, audience, and purpose as core concepts in communication.) In accordance with years of research, future teachers learn to address grammar conventions within the context of student writing. (See Patricia Dunn’s post on grammar for a better understanding of the disconnect between grammar drills and writing skills.) Teacher educators work hard to help future teachers learn effective ways to teach drafting, revision, and editing.
The Writing component of the PRE is the most frequently failed subtest. The test includes two essays and 42 multiple choice questions about grammar, mechanics, and usage. Similarly, the Praxis Core writing test also includes a multiple choice grammar section, and students must choose a grammatically correct sentence from a choice of five sentences with slight variations in punctuation and word choice. While they are able to demonstrate correct grammar and usage in their essay responses, test-takers are often unable to correctly answer multiple choice questions outside of the context of writing. This inconsistency does not surprise English educators. While our teacher preparation courses teach future teachers the importance of addressing grammar conventions within the context of students’ own writing, these same future teachers are being tested on grammar questions that are disconnected from writing. The PRE and Praxis are not accurate measures of writing skills, nor are they accurate ways to assess teachers’ understanding of grammar conventions. The tests are inherently flawed.
What Can We Do?
We see the way standardized tests can undermine a student’s confidence, convincing students like Tania and Autumn that they’re not good enough to pursue their dreams. We also see the injustice of standardized tests, which tend to work against racial diversity and favor students of higher income. This is unacceptable, and we must keep pushing back against test scores as barriers.
Students need to be informed about alternative options when they exist. In high school and college, students should understand the politics behind standardized testing and the lucrative reasons that companies like Pearson create and sell standardized tests. Our older students are also voters with voices, and we can help them address the standardized testing craze through appropriate channels. They can write letters to legislators to inform them of the flaws inherent in a writing test designed like the PRE.
In response to our frustration with this test, the Michigan Conference on English Education has filed a petition to the Michigan Superintendent of Education through Change.org. Supporters can sign the petition, which proposes alternative options to the PRE for Michigan, and share it on social media. We continue to solicit support and signatures in Michigan. Unfortunately, the nationwide dependency on standardized tests to determine capability is difficult to undermine. We have to keep trying. Policy changes take time and squeaky wheels. We need to be squeaky wheels. It’s easy to believe that a professional will have more clout than a student or parent, but that’s simply not true. In her recent blog post, Cathy Fleischer notes that parents often have “a better chance of being heard” than professionals in the field. Students, parents, and ordinary citizens must continue to push back against standardized testing at every level of education if we want change.
Lindsay Jeffers is a former high-school English and Spanish teacher who now works with future secondary teachers at Western Michigan University. Lindsay is a member of NCTE and CEE and is a doctoral candidate in English Education.
This post was peer-reviewed through the Writers Who Care process.