Frustration with standardized tests often goes like this: What about the people — legislators, bureaucrats, educators — who make kids do them? Why don’t we force those adults to take the tests, too? Let’s see how they like it.
That's been wishful thinking — until now. The co-founders of a successful charter school network in Texas told me they are, astonishingly, requiring applicants for teaching spots to take the same anxiety-provoking exams they require of students.
The first time I heard this from Tom Torkelson, co-founder of IDEA Public Schools, I expressed disbelief. Say that again? Policymakers have long considered it wrong and insulting to subject even new teachers to these tests. Experts assure me this is the first time such a requirement has been imposed on U.S. educators.
It is an explosive event, sure to be denounced. But Torkelson and IDEA co-founder JoAnn Gama — former teachers themselves — see it as simple logic.
They run 61 schools with 36,000 students, almost all from low-income families in the poorest parts of the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio and Austin. If you are applying to teach a college-level Advanced Placement class in one of the system’s high schools, you must first take one of the three-hour AP tests in your subject. The same goes for the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) one-hour tests required of third-graders through eighth-graders. If you want to teach those grades at an IDEA school, you must first take the relevant STAAR test. IDEA creates mock AP and STAAR exams using publicly released questions. It requires them only of applicants new to the network.
As IDEA was moving toward some of the highest AP participation rates in the country three years ago, Torkelson asked his staff members what percentage of their teachers had passed the AP exam in their subject. “I got a lot of blank stares,” he said. “How complicated is it? If you are going to teach calculus, you’ve got to be able to pass the calculus exam.”
So taking an AP test was added to the interview process. IDEA also required newcomers to take a STAAR test, Gama said, after it was discovered during a training session that some IDEA teachers couldn’t pass the state’s fifth-grade math test or eighth-grade social studies exam. Teachers already working for IDEA are not required to take the tests, but if they happen to do so and flunk, they are given extra training.
Torkelson acknowledged that the testing requirement is not a cure-all. “Ultimately, if you can pass the test, it’s still possible that you’re going to be lousy as a teacher,” he said.
Reaction has been mixed. Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president who runs the AP program, said IDEA’s practice “could help both school administrators and teachers identify whether an individual knows the discipline well enough . . . and identify specific concepts and skills where that prospective teacher could benefit from additional professional learning.”
Nina Rees, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the policy was “a great example of an innovative approach public charter schools are taking to help ensure teachers are experts in their subject area.”
But Celeste Busser, senior press officer for the National Education Association teachers union, said taking the AP exam “as a condition of employment doesn’t make any sense.” She said it is not going to give anyone an understanding of “whether they can teach the content.”
“What a good teacher does is more than drilling for the test,” said Robert Schaeffer, spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. “This reflects a further narrowing of the teaching of the course to reflect the test.”
I hope IDEA’s approach to ensuring teacher quality spreads, although the network should expect the outrage and disgust that often follow defiance of taboos. As for the psychometricians and politicians who create and install such tests, I doubt they will ever let themselves be examined on how much of that stuff they actually know.