Education Schools' Training On Standardized Tests Found Lacking In New Report

These days, it's not enough for teachers to know how to manage a classroom, impart knowledge and deliver lesson plans.

In the wake of test-heavy policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, a teacher's job description now entails data analysis and a grounding in statistics -- crucial skills that a new study claims teachers aren't learning in the education colleges that prepare them for the classroom.

The study, by the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Counsel for Teacher Quality, analyzed 180 education schools to see how effectively and coherently they teach prospective teachers the skills associated with using test data to improve student learning. And the results weren't pretty.

"Only about six programs of the 180 covered what we decided we could categorize as three different domains of assessment," said Julie Greenberg, NCTQ's senior policy analyst. "We want to really make sure that new teachers are supported by that understanding when they go into the classroom."

NCTQ released the report in advance of its controversial, much-awaited A-to-F rankings of education schools, which will run in U.S. News and World Report.

When assessing education colleges' syllabi, NCTQ looked at three areas pertinent to using test information to better teach students. Of the education programs surveyed, 21 percent were found to be adequate in "assessment literacy," or familiarity with the terms associated with different tests. Only 2 percent adequately taught "instructional decision-making," which refers to ways to "derive instructional guidance from test data." And less than 1 percent of programs adequately covered analytical skills, which covers how to "dissect, describe and display the data that emerges from assessments."

Moreover, most current instruction focuses on the tests teachers write themselves, not the standardized tests that are becoming an increasing presence in classrooms around the country, even as states tie teacher evaluations to test scores.

"A lot of schools of education continue to become quite oppositional to the notion of standardized tests, even though they have very much become a reality in K-12 schools," said Kate Walsh, NCTQ president. "The ideological resistance is critical."

NCTQ used freedom of information requests to gather syllabi for their analysis after education schools declined to outline their own curricula. "Institutions have not cooperated with us," Greenberg said.

And the recently merged National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, a group that represents education colleges across the country, disputed the study's findings. "NCTQ's study raises questions about the validity of its conclusions," James Cibulka, the group's president, said in a statement to The Huffington Post. He took issue with the study for not including all courses "in which literacy was the main topic" or educational psychology courses that include testing.

"Literacy is a small and very specialized piece that has to be threaded throughout," Greenberg said in response. "That's a very tangential issue."

Greenberg added that the study did take into account psychology courses geared toward an audience of future teachers. "We don't see his critique as undermining our point," she said.

The tiff over Tuesday's report reflects a broader battle over the nature of teacher preparation programs, as the U.S. Department of Education aims to bring regulation of teachers colleges in line with the outcomes their alumni produce in the classroom. Negotiations among a panel of experts assigned by the Education Department to write rules governing education schools collapsed recently.

It also comes as NCTQ prepares its rankings of education schools, which have attracted their own outcry from schools and those who represent them. They contend that the ranking methodology is unsound, and last year 35 leading schools sent NCTQ a letter calling attention to what they argue are flaws in the rankings.

NCTQ said it decided to focus on the assessment issue in part because teachers will have to get schooled in a new type of data analysis as states implement new, computerized tests that come with new national reading and math standards, known as the Common Core.

Some teachers agree that their education didn't prepare them for the torrent of information they'd have to analyze. "The college I went to did not prepare us for the push on 'data, data, data,'" says Christine Yarzabek, a first-grade teacher in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

But Yarzabek questions the overall focus on testing to begin with. "We are given programs that cover all subjects, that are very scripted. There is no need for lesson plans because everything is written for you in the teacher's manual," she said. "We give so many assessments, and sometimes we don't even really know what they mean or why we're doing them. There is a major disconnect."

Sean Williams, a public high school teacher in Orange County, Calif., feels similarly exasperated. "There is a point in there [the report] that teachers are pushed to use data-driven instruction and should probably have more background and training in using the data," he said. "But then there is so much data collected that teachers feel like all they do is test and there is no time to actually teach."

Gregory Kristof contributed reporting to this article.