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Board had rejected teaching tests: But But federal law means Iowa will now require examinations
What happened to states' rights?

by Megan Hawkins

To test or not to test? The people who regulate Iowa's teachers thought they had answered that question.

Members of the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners say a federal edict that requires new elementary school teachers to take a test on classroom material is an idea that they dismissed more than a year ago.

"At that time we felt very, very comfortable about all the benchmarks and the way institutions prepare teachers in Iowa," said Thomas Paulsen, vice chairman of the board, which issues licenses and hands down reprimands.

Iowa has been one of only a few states that do not test incoming teachers on subjects such as reading and math to determine whether they know the material they will be asked to teach. The federal rule will require graduates of elementary-education programs to pass the test before they can be licensed. Secondary teachers are considered competent because they must have majored in or done course work equivalent to a major in their specialty areas, such as science or math.

The examiners had previously debated the issue and decided such tests were unnecessary.

"Based on the research we did on the board, I was personally very happy with the process we had implemented in our programs across Iowa with licensure," Paulsen said. "The process we have in place seems a whole lot more rigorous and in-depth than just a single test."

The U.S. Department of Education, however, threatened to withhold millions of dollars in grants to states that refused to administer tests.

"I guess at this point it's out of our hands," Paulsen said.

A study next fall will determine the score on a standardized test that prospective teachers will be required to meet, starting with those who graduate in May 2007.

They will not be required to take the entire battery of Praxis II tests, just one that applies to their "content area."

The cost will be about $100 each. About 2,500 new teachers are licensed in Iowa each year.

The Iowa Legislature in 2001 required about 5,300 license applicants to take the test and compared scores to prospective teachers nationwide. Of the 2,890 graduates who took the elementary-education test, for example, about 75 percent scored high enough to teach in Missouri.

Some argued that the figures might have been skewed because students knew the scores wouldn't count against them and because the state paid for the tests, creating less pressure to do well.

Some college administrators in states that use the tests said that although they can be high-stress and costly, the elementary-content test is not typically a roadblock. Last year at Winona State (Minn.) University, for example, 99 percent of the students passed, said Paula O'Malley, who handles teacher certification.

The more extensive Praxis tests are of a "high level of difficulty," she said.

The purpose of the tests is to hold teachers to similar standards nationally, explained Susan Fischer of the Iowa Department of Education.

"Most states do have a cutoff score to show the public and the federal government that those individuals have a basic content knowledge for the subjects they are teaching," Fischer said. "What Iowa has said ... is that we have multiple measures that indicate a lot of information instead of a one-day test."

For some, the battle has been an issue of local control and independence from federal mandates.

"I guess we're pretty proud of what we've been able to do in Iowa," Paulsen said. "Educationally, we've done very well, and our scores over the years have proven we've done very well."

— Megan Hawkins
Des Moines Register


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