Rapacious Testing Vendors Have No Place Assessing Potential Teachers

Teacher Kennis Wong and pupils at Broadway Elementary School in Venice, Los Angeles, California, April 11, 2011. Classroom training is the most effective way to assess potential teachers, not standardized tests, educator Maryanne J. Kane writes. Lucy Nicholson/reuters

A vendor is "a person who sells things, especially on the street or a business that sells a particular type of product," according to the dictionary definition. A vendor is a noble professional. I would go to a vendor to purchase a hat. I would not go to a vendor to purchase a test. Yet, that is exactly what occurs when an institute or an organization buys an assessment program.

In and of itself, purchasing a testing or assessment program is not destructive. Involving an outside source to get an objective look at achievement can be useful. The detrimental effect of hiring an outside agency comes when it is done large-scale, involving huge amounts of cash, as was the case in Texas. "The London-based Pearson Education company has held a $468 million, five-year contract for state exams through 2015. Lawmakers, the former Senate Education Committee chairman, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had gone into battle with the company in 2013 while criticizing its excessive influence on education policy. Overall, leaders called for more intensive scrutiny of any future testing contracts. It was decided by the state auditor that the state education agency had not overseen the contract with Pearson in an adequate manner."

American children deserve the most knowledgeable teachers standing in front of the classroom. No one would dispute this expectation. However, there is major disagreement on how to identify the most talented teachers. Certainly, a rigorous interview process that includes the candidate actually teaching can assist school districts in hiring potential teachers. Certainly, quality teacher training programs that include a full year of student teaching, not the standard one semester, can develop future teachers' content knowledge and teaching skills. However, many states and professional licensing organizations also mandate Praxis tests as part of the certification process. Why is this mandate suspect?

Remember the definition of vendor? The Educational Testing Service (ETS), creators of the Praxis tests, continually refer to themselves as "vendor" in Guidelines for Producing RFIs and RFPs Related to Teacher Licensure Assessment Program. As a vendor, ETS is a business selling a product. The bottom line to any business is profit. Even though ETS defines itself as "nonprofit," ETS recently announced an increase in certification application fees.

  • Program Specialist: From $125 to $200
  • Resource Specialist: From $125 to $200
  • Instructional Add-On: From $125 to $200
  • Level II: From $125 to $200

To prepare for the Praxis exams, ETS conveniently has an online store selling practice tests. Most interactive practice tests cost $19.95. In true vendor fashion, ETS offers a saving of 20 percent upon purchasing the Core Academic Skills for Educators Interactive Practice Test Value Pack, priced at $47.88. In the event of failing any of the Praxis exams, candidates have unlimited opportunities to re-take exams…for an additional fee. Understandably, if candidates take a Praxis exam multiple times, it is necessary to change the questions on each and every exam. Candidates could remember exam questions and share this information with others. And, if candidates are failing the same exam multiple times, it is reasonable to assume they will need to practice. However, if candidates purchase the practice tests, there is a limited amount of time to use this resource, as it comes with a 90-day subscription. If the Praxis exams change with each session, then the practice tests should also change. However, this is not the case. If a candidate's first test practice subscription expires, and the candidate fails the exam, the candidate may purchase the exact same test again. ETS states, "There is only one version available for this test title, so each time you take the practice test, you answer the same questions in the same order. Retaking or repurchasing the same practice test more than once does not give you different practice questions or change the order in which the questions are delivered."

Might you disagree with your failing Praxis score? True to commerce, ETS sells a Praxis Score Review for $65. Upon payment, ETS will "double check" the Praxis exam and may actually modify a score. This is unacceptable on many professional and ethical levels. How can ETS charge a fee to double check its own service? Shouldn't ETS be double checking results as part of their protocol? If ETS made the mistake and actually changes a score, shouldn't ETS be refunding the original exam fee instead of charging an additional fee for their mistake?

I was incorrect comparing ETS to a hat vendor. If I purchased a hat and found it unsatisfactory, I could return the hat and get a refund. Many vendors demonstrate confidence in their product by offering a "satisfaction guaranteed" promise. However, if a candidate pays for the ETS practice test and fails the exam, does the fault lie with the candidate's study skills or the poor construction of both the practice test and the exam? If my hat didn't function the way I thought it would, I would get my money back. If the practice exam doesn't serve to help the candidate pass the exam, not only does that candidate not get a refund, but has to pay an additional fee for the same practice test and an additional fee for a different exam. But in all fairness to ETS, maybe the candidate was weak going into the exam, even with the practice test. One way of determining the success rate of the exam is to look at the statistics of candidates who pass the exam(s) upon first try.

Standardized tests are designed so that the outcome follows a normal distribution curve. "If a teacher looks at her class's scores and sees that the mean grade of her midterm was approximately a C, and slightly fewer students earned Bs and Ds and even fewer students earned As and Fs, then she could conclude that the test was a good design if she uses a C (70%) as the average grade. If, on the other hand, she plots the test grades and sees that the average grade was a 60%, with no grades above an 80%, then she could conclude that the test may have been too difficult."

How many candidates have to retake the Praxis exams multiple times? Are ETS's exam score distributions normally distributed? Or are the exam scores skewed and have a disproportionate number of people who do very poorly? If this is the case, the exam by nature is too hard for the testing population.

In conclusion, the ETS is a business, a vendor. Using a vendor in the teacher certification process is detrimental to the teaching profession. Teaching talent can be nurtured through extending the student-teaching requirements to one full year in the undergraduate colleges and universities. Teaching talent can be identified in the interview process when school districts mandate candidates teach several demonstration lessons in the classroom prior to employment.

Let's return to the Pearson Education company battle of 2013. A new vendor took over in a hostile environment. The name of the new vendor? ETS.

Maryanne J. Kane, Ph.D, received her doctorate in Music Education from Temple University and has 30-plus-years experience teaching in various elementary settings: parochial, private, and public in the Philadelphia and Delaware County areas.