Recent legislative efforts across the country have strengthened efforts to align reading instruction with the science of reading. These laws typically require teachers to use methods and materials aligned to the solid evidence base on how children best learn to read. To implement these laws, schools are required to hire teachers who are properly trained in those tried-and-true methods, and state licensure exam results can assist prospective employers in telling which candidates have the knowledge and skills needed to do the job right. But a new policy brief from the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) casts doubt on the evidence provided by many of those exams.
Author Hannah Putman takes a look at all twenty-five of the licensure tests used in various combinations across nearly all states to determine the readiness of teachers to teach young children to read. They are a mix of reading-specific tests and tests of general educational competence that can include math, science, and other subjects, as well. She compares each test with a detailed rubric that includes the five core components of the science of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), plus an exhaustive list of related topic areas under each of those components, and ranks each test in one of four possible categories. (The brief offers a full list and further info on her methodology.)
An acceptable test assesses at least half of all topics identified within each of the five components, does not combine reading with other subjects (e.g., math or science), and includes few practices contrary to the research. The latter is an important point, as incorrect practice can negate correct practice even where the latter is strongly encouraged and supported.
A strong test—the highest ranking here—assesses an even higher percentage (75 or more) of the topics identified within each component, meets all of the other criteria for an acceptable test, and also addresses how to support struggling readers and English learners.
A weak test either addresses fewer than half of the topics in one or more components or combines reading with one or more other subjects or includes four or more practices contrary to the research (without clearly identifying that these are undesirable teaching practices).
An unacceptable test covers none of the topics in one or more components, or does not cover all five components adequately and also includes four or more contrary practices.
The bad news: While no test sunk to the depths of unacceptable, a whopping fifteen of the twenty-five qualified as weak. The most common negative factor was failure to adequately address all five components of the science of reading, and the three weakest tests addressed an average of fewer than 40 percent of topics in each component. The next-most common negative was combining reading with other subjects, such that strength in another subject could result in a passing score that masks a limited understanding of reading instruction specifically. On the upside, of the ten tests that met the criteria of acceptable, six exceeded the criteria and were rated as strong measures of aspiring teachers’ knowledge of reading instruction.
Unfortunately, weak tests are widely used across the country. Only twenty states use a strong or acceptable reading licensure test, the most common of those being the Foundations of Reading test, used by eleven states, including Fordham’s home state of Ohio. Twenty-eight states use weak tests, two use a combination of both acceptable and weak tests, and one state (Iowa) has no elementary teacher reading licensure test at all. Twelve states allow teaching candidates to choose among several different tests, although in most cases all options are weak, so the choice doesn’t matter much. Author Putman also cites the specific case of Oklahoma, which had an acceptable reading test in use, but in 2022 began allowing candidates to opt for a weaker test. (This was explained as an effort to combat a shortage of teachers in the Sooner State.)
Putman’s recommendations are straightforward. Testing companies should either shore up or discontinue their weak tests; she notes that both ETS and Pearson currently produce both low- and high-quality tests, so they should be readily able to refocus on the good stuff to the exclusion of the bad without much disruption to their business. State leaders should switch out their weak tests for stronger ones—no matter what political or administrative effort that requires—reduce the number of test options available for aspiring teachers, and close any testing loopholes that may exist. (For instance, some states do not require reading tests for special education or early childhood teachers.)
NCTQ is leading the charge to make sure that every avenue is covered to ensure that the vital components of the science of reading are taught, tested, and delivered to students, and also to ensure that all harmful teaching practices are eliminated in every corner of the education system, no matter how obscure.
SOURCE: Hannah Putman, “False Assurances: Many states’ licensure tests don’t signal whether elementary teachers understand reading instruction,” National Council on Teacher Quality (November 2023).