Research Finds Licensure Tests for Special Education Teachers Lacking
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Education researcher Sandra Stotsky recommends states critically examine the content and knowledge assessed by their licensure tests for special education teachers. Her analysis of the tests revealed serious assessment gaps.
“Subject matter tests designed specifically for prospective special education teachers are empty of expectations for the knowledge needed for teaching reading and math,” said Stotsky, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. “They are simply not useful.”
Stotsky reported the results of her research in the Journal of Learning Disabilities in an article titled “Licensure Tests for Special Education Teachers: How Well They Assess Knowledge of Reading Instruction and Mathematics.”
“We’ve got to strengthen teacher licensure tests in this country in general and upgrade the knowledge base that new teachers start with in their first year,” she said. “We need more academically demanding tests for all teachers, but especially for special education teachers because students with learning disabilities usually need in-depth instruction in reading.”
Stotsky recommends that each state reconsider the content of its subject matter licensure exams for special education teachers. The tests should assess research-based knowledge of beginning reading instruction and cover basic mathematics topics and concepts.
She also advises each state to examine the admission standards for its teacher preparation programs. Nationally, Pre-K-8 teachers tend to come from the bottom 30 percent of the college population. Stotsky compared this to the standards in Finland, where admission to teacher preparation programs is highly selective. Teachers come from the top 10 percent of college graduates and teaching is clearly seen as a highly respectable profession.
Stotsky’s study of the licensure tests focused on the areas of mathematics and beginning reading instruction — specifically the development of phonemic awareness, phonics, and vocabulary knowledge. She noted that California, Virginia and Massachusetts have adequate tests of reading and that Massachusetts is the only state to require a separate mathematics test for prospective special education and elementary teachers.
“The most important characteristic of an effective teacher is the teacher’s knowledge of the subject. This is especially true for math,” she said. “A teacher who doesn’t know math can’t be a fantastic math teacher.”
The study also examined tests required of prospective teachers to determine whether they assess understanding and use of educational theories that underlie effective research-based practices. Stotsky thinks these tests could be directing prospective teachers away from research-based methods.
For example, to judge by its Web site, the tests of learning and teaching provided by Educational Testing Service, used by about 25 states, seem to promote student-directed learning over teacher-directed instruction, even though research shows that special education students need explicit and systematic instruction in both reading and mathematics. These tests support an educational philosophy “that should have been declared a failure long ago for students with learning disabilities,” Stotsky wrote.
“I wouldn’t want a prospective teacher to take a test discrediting teacher-directed instruction when for special education it is an effective strategy,” she said. “I want a test that supports it. We need to either create a new test or change the test to reflect effective research-based methods.”
Stotsky holds the Endowed Chair in Teacher Quality in the department of education reform in the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas.
Sandra Stotsky, professor, education reform
College of Education and Health Professions
Barbara Jaquish, science and research communications officer
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