Can We Simply Raise the Bar on Teacher Quality?

By Dr. Mavuto Kalulu

Academic research shows that teacher effectiveness plays a critical role in student learning. One study (Hanushek, 2011) shows that the difference between an effective teacher and an ineffective one can be as much as a year’s worth of learning.

In order to ensure the quality of teachers, states require teachers to pass qualifying exams, Praxis I and/or Praxis II, to obtain a teaching license. If there is indeed a positive correlation between teachers’ effectiveness and the teachers’ qualifying exam scores, then policy makers can raise the bar on these exams to improve students’ achievements.

According to research findings by ACRE scholar Dr. James Shuls, simply raising the score needed to pass the licensure exams in Arkansas does not appear to be an effective strategy. He finds that in Arkansas, the relationship between teaching effectiveness and Praxis scores is very small to non-existent. Taking advantage of the fact that Arkansas does have some teachers who scored less than the cut off score on the Praxis exam, Shuls addresses the question of whether or not students in classes with teachers who score higher on standardized tests perform better than students in classes with teachers who score lower. On the Praxis I exam, student outcomes are not significantly different for teachers who pass or fail the Praxis I exam.

The Shuls study is not the only one to have found that the current screening tools are doing little more than unnecessarily limiting the supply of new teachers. In an article for EducationNext, Chad Alderman provides evidence supporting his earlier work with Ashley LiBetti Mitchel, which discusses a lack of knowledge in how to properly train good teachers and alternative ways to test teacher effectiveness. In his follow up article, he cites Shuls’ research as well as another article by Matt Barnum, all of which have concluded that instead of screening out ineffective teachers only, Praxis I exams are actually screening out some potentially high quality teachers. Thus in Arkansas, raising Praxis I cut scores will lead to some of our better teachers being screened out.

Praxis II, however, is an almost effective screening mechanism for both Math and the English Language Arts (ELA) exams. Shuls finds a statistically significant difference between teachers who pass Praxis II and those that fail. The magnitude is, however, so small that Shuls recommends Arkansas leaders and citizens would be better served by trying alternative approaches to improving student outcomes. Increasing the cut scores for passing the two Praxis exams is not a good solution.

The “easy way” solution of working within the current system but increasing the cutoff score for passing the two Praxis exams does not work. More outside the box thinking is needed. Stanford University education researcher, Eric Hanushek, suggests that schools remove the very worst teachers from the classroom (Hanushek, 2011). Another alternative, is to allow parents to choose the school to enroll their children. School choice generates competition among schools which tends to increase teacher quality (Hanushek and Rivkin, 2003).

Increasing cutoff scores on Praxis exams is not the solution. Teaching is a doing profession, not a test-taking profession.