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N.C. teacher tests: Wait! Don’t throw the baby out!

In a recent EdNC piece, my colleague Diana Lys from UNC Chapel Hill wrote that the best way to assess teaching is through performance assessments, and I could not agree more. The performance assessment she describes, edTPA, is far from ideal, but it is probably the best option for assessing teaching performance. As Lys mentions, North Carolina teacher preparation programs must adopt a performance assessment by fall of 2019. If teacher candidates do not pass these performance assessments, they will not get licensed.

But does that mean we should do away with the Pearson paper-and-pencil tests? Should we not give any content-based tests? EdTPA does not assess whether teachers know the mathematics, science, history, civics, or the literacy content essential for teaching. Indeed, the test does not assess all the pedagogy I want teachers to be skilled in. Candidates play a role in selecting what they perform on these assessments. While there is much value in EdTPA, at least one content test is still needed. Let me explain. 

One of the tests elementary teachers are required to pass is the Pearson Reading Foundations test. When it was adopted five years ago, I was concerned. As a former first grade teacher, reading specialist, and longtime reading researcher during the “reading wars” of the 1990s, I was worried about the content of this test.

So, I took it. I paid the full fee, registered, and showed up at a testing center in Raleigh. I had never been to a testing center so I walked in at 7 a.m. with coffee in hand, planning to sip while I tested. I had to give it up, along with my coat and granola bar because you cannot take anything in the booth with you. I was cold and uncaffeinated, but settled in for the four-hour test.

The test was hard, and it took me most of the time I was given. After a series of multiple choice questions, I had to analyze a child’s reading errors and write an essay describing the kind of support the child needs most, based on the reading errors. I was exhausted by the time I finished. My assessment after this experience? This is a test worth teaching to. 

The Pearson Foundations test assesses deep understanding of the content and pedagogy elementary teachers must know to teach reading and writing. The content reflects scientific-based reading research and the linguistic underpinnings of reading and writing (e.g., phonemes, syllabi types). It also assesses decisions a teacher might make when students stumble over words as they read, strategies for building fluency, approaches to early writing instruction, including the role of “invented spelling,” and much more.

Now is not the time to do away with this test. In North Carolina, we still have less than 40 percent of our children reading proficiently by fourth grade, one of the best predictors of school success. It is widely accepted that one reason for this terrible statistic is that many children are not explicitly taught to read.

We are less than 20 years from the period of the raucous “reading wars” in which professionals could not agree on how to best teach children to read. Thankfully, science won this debate, and with the publication of the National Reading Panel Report, the content and practices essential for elementary reading instruction are indisputable.

The problem may be that not all teachers—or teacher educators—are up to speed on this content. But that is changing. The test has been one of the drivers of workshops and institutes across the state that teachers and teacher educators have taken to learn the content and hone their skills. Until we are certain all teachers are prepared on scientifically-based reading instruction, we should not move away from the Pearson Reading Foundations test.

Why is there no mathematics teacher licensure exam that is similarly constructed? Pearson or other test makers would have to answer that. I agree with many mathematics education experts who say the elementary Pearson test is inappropriate for assessing whether someone can teach elementary mathematics. As Luke Reinke from UNC Charlotte demonstrated in a video recently, the content of the mathematics test has little to do with the mathematics or pedagogy teachers must know in order to teach well. A better test, or successful completion of coursework designed to assess both content and pedagogy in mathematics could replace this inappropriate assessment.

So, in response to my colleague Diana Lys who recommends only performance assessments for teachers, I say, let’s keep the reading content test for now and conduct quality studies to see how predicative it is for helping students learn to read. The children in our state deserve no less. 

Ellen McIntyre

Ellen McIntyre is dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences at the University of Tennessee. She served as dean of the College of Education at UNC Charlotte from 2013-2020. She has studied reading instruction for more than three decades.