Reading exam still an obstacle for would-be teachers

Colleges and universities that train teachers in Connecticut are producing too many graduates who don’t know how to teach children to read, according to the latest results of a teacher licensing exam.

Three in 10 students failed the exam when it was given in July, only a slight improvement since the test was introduced a year ago.

“This is really discouraging,” Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said of the latest results on an exam that tests prospective elementary and preschool teachers on the science of teaching reading.

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Although the overall results were disappointing, a handful of schools, including those in the Connecticut State University System, improved their passing rates after renewing their focus on the exam, which emphasizes phonics, fluency and other skills that many educators believe are crucial for teaching young readers.

Some colleges had only a smattering of students who took the most recent test, but at schools with at least 20 test-takers, the passing rate ranged from 60 percent at the University of Bridgeport to 91 percent at the University of Connecticut.

The State Board of Education imposed the new certification requirement because of concern over disappointing reading performance in the state’s elementary schools, particularly among low-income and minority children. Although those children showed some improvement on state tests this year, they remain far behind white and more affluent classmates in reading and mathematics.

McQuillan was instrumental in pushing for the new certification requirement, hoping it would prod teacher preparation programs to bolster instruction in teaching methods that have been backed by various research studies.

“I can’t think of anything more important,” he said. “You can’t really effectively teach what you don’t know.”

The Foundations of Reading exam, consisting of 199 multiple-choice questions and two essay questions, is designed to test knowledge of teaching methods that reflect a rigorous approach to reading instruction, including phonics.

“It’s not a perfect test, but it certainly goes a  long way toward asking questions that would reflect knowledge about the research” on reading, said Margie Gillis, a scientist at Haskins Laboratories, a New Haven research institute specializing in  language and literacy.

How to teach beginning readers has been the subject of an intense, decades-old debate among educators. Some support a skills-based strategy while others favor an approach that relies more heavily on exposing children to literature.

Gillis is a proponent of an approach that emphasizes skills such as phonics, vocabulary, spelling, fluency and comprehension. Many of those methods 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 training programs have been slow to respond.

Too many new teachers “walk into a classroom assuming they know how to teach children to read and find out that one survey course [in college] wasn’t sufficient,” Gillis said.

In Connecticut, the certification exam has led some of the leading teacher preparation programs to make sure their students are ready for what many describe as a rigorous test.

“We’re seeing some improvement,” said Louise Feroe, chief academic officer for the Connecticut State University System, where the early test results prompted faculty members from all four of the system’s universities to conduct a review of teaching approaches.

“They’re taking it very seriously,” Feroe said. “There’s a real understanding that we know a great deal more about the science of teaching reading, and we have to give our students the tools.”

The renewed emphasis showed at Southern Connecticut State University and Eastern Connecticut State University, where pass rates rose from 57 to 65 percent and from 58 to 67 percent, respectively. (Western Connecticut State University had too few students take the July test for a valid comparison.)

But the star of the system was Central Connecticut State University in New Britain. At Central, one of the state’s largest producers of new teachers, just 58 percent of test-takers got passing scores on four separate administrations of the exam between May and November of 2009. The school responded by setting up review sessions, establishing tutorial programs and stressing the significance of the test to faculty and students.

On the latest test, 73 percent passed.

“We took some pretty serious steps here. . . .We’re very proud of the progress that was made,” said Kenneth Weiss, a professor of reading and language arts. Weiss has criticized the exam, saying some of its questions are worded poorly, but he said, “Any classroom teacher . . . should know what’s covered on the test.”

Julia Kara-Soteriou, a professor who coordinates undergraduate reading courses for Central’s teacher preparation program, said, “Students do pay more attention to this test [now]. They do begin to prepare earlier. We begin to talk about this test from the first reading class.”

Officials at Central say the 73 percent passing rate is misleadingly low because it includes some test-takers who are not enrolled in the training program or who have not completed it. Among those who have completed the preparation program, 89 percent passed the test, said Mitchell Sakofs, dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies.

“We’re not going to be satisfied,” he said, “until we get that 89 percent to 100 percent.”

At the University of Bridgeport, where 40 percent of test-takers failed the test in July–up from 31 percent in last year’s tests–the school’s graduate teacher preparation program is shifting its emphasis.

“We have changed our curriculum to reflect the test,” said Margaret Queenan, a professor of reading and language arts. Queenan was part of a state committee that reviewed the test before it was adopted but was not a supporter of the exam’s skills-based approach, she said.

“Most children come to school [already] knowing those concepts if they’ve gone to preschool or if their parents have read to them,” she said.

Nevertheless, the university, starting this year, is requiring more coursework on skills such as phonics and fluency.

“This is the test we have,” Queenan said. “This is the test we must prepare for.”