Tuesday, April 11, 2006


I took the Mass teacher's exams for English in March and the results arrived yesterday. I passed the Communications and Literacy, and the English subject matter tests. So now I'm qualified for a "preliminary" license. (But not the "initial" license because, in a terminology misuse reminiscent of "before you begin" syndrome, "initial" is not the first level of license, but the second.)

Everyone who wants to be teacher must take the Communications and Literacy test. Its proper name actually is, "Test to Exclude Non-Native Speakers of English." It focuses on such vital knowledge as the difference between a colon and semicolon, without which a teacher could not effectively communicate with his students. It is mostly a simplified version of the English subject matter test so if you are taking the English test, it's like taking the same test twice, only without the questions about Emily Dickinson. The test purports to test "communication" but mostly just tests picayune points of grammar. I bet it's because the testing company saved themselves the bother of designing a better communications test by just re-using questions left over from the English test. Less work for them and who does it harm anyway besides a few foreigners.

Non-native speakers of English have a difficult time with this test and that should be changed. Native speakers of English though ought to be able to get through it, at least with some study. The Globe published three stories of teachers who had failed these tests. For two, English was not their native language. For the third, a native English speaker with a master's degree in education, the problem was supposedly "test anxiety." I think anxiety is simply an indicator of your level of preparedness. It's a symptom, not a cause. And a person with a master's degree should be able to pass her subject matter test. I have some sympathy on the other hand--this teacher and one of the others they wrote about were dance or phys ed teachers. The test tests the wrong things for people doing these jobs. It has a kind of tone deafness.

I mentioned this to the members of a sparsely-attended meeting of my book club. One is a teacher retired after 32 years. I expected him to grouch, which I have heard from others in kneejerk fashion, about "low standards" but was surprised to hear him say, "you can't predict how people will react--people react differently." Some people won't fit into the cookiecutter of a standard test and we risk losing talented teachers as a result. But you do need some basis upon which to assess qualifications. Nothing is perfect but on balance testing seems like a reasonable solution. There ought to be some avenue of appeal, but that risks the development of yet another bureaucratic black hole.

The Globe also published a letter from a supposedly highly-qualified math teacher who seemed indignant that he was not considered highly qualified by the state since, apparently, he has not taken the math subject matter test. Shouldn't the solution to this grave injustice be obvious, to such a fine mind as his?

Sample question:

The paragraphs above contain:

--a spelling error
--a misuse of quotations
--a misplaced conjunction
--a sentence out of order
--none of these

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