Skills test trips up hundreds of prospective teachers

She enjoys student teaching, carries a perfect 4.0 grade point average and expects to complete her master’s degree in the summer, but Stephanie Salafia’s dream of becoming a public school teacher is on hold.

She is one of hundreds of prospective elementary and preschool teachers in Connecticut who have failed a required exam testing their knowledge of how to teach children to read.

About one in three test-takers in teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities across the state have failed the exam since the state began using it last year as a licensing requirement.

reading test graphic

“I’ve taken reading courses. I studied for a solid month” for the test, said Salafia, a 27-year-old graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. Unless she passes the Foundations in Reading test when it is given again in March, “it will hold me back from getting a job in the fall,” she said.

Failure rates exceeded 40 percent at some of the state’s largest teacher preparation programs, including the campuses of the Connecticut State University system.

“I’m rightly alarmed,” said state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan. “It’s clear to me there hasn’t been enough attention to the science” of teaching reading, he said. “You can’t teach something well that you don’t know.”

At McQuillan’s urging, the state Board of Education imposed the new certification requirement for elementary and preschool teachers because of concern over disappointing reading performance in Connecticut’s elementary schools, particularly among low-income and minority children.

Test scores for schoolchildren on statewide reading exams have remained relatively flat for much of the past decade. On a national reading exam, Connecticut’s status – tops in the nation for fourth-graders as recently as 2003 – began to slip behind some other states, most notably Massachusetts.

In addition, the performance gap between low-income children and their wealthier classmates on that national test remains the largest in the nation – part of the impetus for a statewide reading summit in 2007 where educators and advocates discussed new approaches, including the testing of prospective teachers.

“The feeling was we needed to do something differently,” said Nancy Pugliese, who heads the teacher certification bureau at the State Department of Education.

The certification exam, consisting of 100 multiple-choice questions and two essay questions, has been used in Massachusetts since 2002. It is designed to test knowledge of teaching methods that reflect a rigorous, systematic approach to reading instruction, including phonics.

Many of those methods, backed by various research studies, were recommended a decade ago by a National Reading Panel report and in Connecticut’s Blueprint for Reading Achievement, but some educators and children’s advocates contend that college and university teacher training programs have been slow to respond.

When the new certification test was introduced, “there was a lot of pushback. There were a lot of people who protested,” said Margie Gillis, a research scientist at Haskins Laboratories, a New Haven research institute specializing in language and literacy.

Gillis is a proponent of the test and of an approach that emphasizes skills such as phonics, vocabulary, spelling, fluency and comprehension. She said some professors may be unfamiliar with the latest methods or may disagree with their importance – a remnant of the intense, decades-old debate over how to teach beginning readers. In that debate, some educators have downplayed the skills-oriented strategy in favor of a literature-based approach.

In a survey of Connecticut elementary and special education teachers published two years ago in the journal Reading Psychology, more than half the teachers surveyed failed to identify key elements of Connecticut’s Blueprint for Reading Achievement, including at what grade levels children are expected to master specific reading skills. A majority also said that their certification program had not adequately prepared them to teach reading.

“It’s not that teachers are bad teachers. It’s that we’re sending people out without the tools to do the job,” said Maureen Ruby, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and an outspoken advocate for more rigorous training in the science of reading instruction.

Ruby, who teaches graduate students, supports the new certification test and has had a successful track record in producing students who have passed it.

Nevertheless, the disappointing early results on many campuses have stirred debate about how colleges train prospective teachers and about the test itself.

“We’re giving students what they need to be good classroom teachers. Whether this test measures that is questionable,” said Kenneth Weiss, a professor of reading and language arts at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. “In many ways, the questions are worded in a very awkward way.”

Some students failed the test more than once. “What about all the other teachers who are teaching now? Why don’t they have to take it?” said Tracy, a 24-year-old graduate student at Southern Connecticut State University who asked that her last name not be used for this story. She has failed the test three times, she said.

“Until I took a graduate class, I had no idea what any of this stuff was,” she said. As an undergraduate, “I took a bunch of classes in the elementary education program, but nothing prepared me for it.”

At Southern, Professor David Levande has been conducting review classes to help students prepare for the exam.

“The main reason they’re not doing well is it’s just a very rigorous test,” he said. “It is taking awhile for faculty and courses to get up to speed with the objectives of the test.” But, he said, “I haven’t seen anything that correlates student performance on the test with their ability to teach reading in the classroom.”

In addition to the new test, the State Department of Education has proposed increasing the number of college credits in reading courses required of prospective elementary and preschool teachers.

All of which is prompting officials to re-examine their training programs.

“We can do a better job of teaching kids how to read, and a test like this helps us identify ways we can become better,” said Edward Malin, director of the Isabelle Farrington School of Education at Sacred Heart University, the largest producer of elementary teachers in Connecticut for much of the past decade.

“I’m not happy with the [76 percent] pass rate,” he said. “We should be close to 90 percent or higher.”

At the University of Connecticut, where 91 percent of test-takers passed the exam, “professors went over the test results and looked for areas our students were not doing well in,” said Marijke Kehrhahn, associate dean of the Neag School of Education. “It’s a good process for making sure we cover what the state feels is central to reading instruction.”

And at Connecticut State University, faculty members are meeting this week to discuss strategies to address the issue, said Louise Feroe, CSU’s senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. She called the high failure rates discouraging.

“This is not good. . . If that kind of trend continues, it will be problematic,” she said. “We need to fix it.”