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Robert Goodman is the Executive Director of the New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning and a former NJ Teacher of the Year.
At first, I was surprised to learn that some educators, including the presidents of the New Jersey Education Association and Public Charter Schools Association, are pushing the state to eliminate the Core Praxis exam requirement for new teachers. These purport to be standardized tests of general knowledge in reading, writing, and math. By reducing the requirements to become a NJ teacher, I was quick to assume that would mean lowering the quality of teachers, and thereby the quality of education delivered in New Jersey classrooms.
Yes, many New Jersey school districts are desperate for more teachers, especially in the STEM areas. But eliminating tests that are currently required of all teachers would just seem like giving up our standards to quickly solve a problem.
I’ve always been a fan of the companion Praxis II Subject Tests which are required by the state for teachers of specific subject areas. They have proved invaluable in setting a minimum standard for the content knowledge a teacher must possess. Those tests have guided the work of my organization, New Jersey Center for Teaching and Learning (NJCTL) in producing many fine teachers of mathematics and science.
I assumed the same would be the case for the three Core Praxis Exams that claim to measure general reading, writing, and math skills. Alas, no.
After taking the time to read the exam descriptions and take sample tests posted by a test prep company, I now understand why I had heard from many other educators that the Core Praxis exams are unnecessary obstacles in the path of prospective teachers. Not only do the exams exacerbate the state’s teacher shortages, they dissuade potentially good educators from ever getting in front of a classroom.
The tests – especially Reading and Writing – are difficult and tedious. The reading passages are torturous in length with language that seems deliberately obtuse, confusing, and absolutely boring.
Questions are not focused on basic literacy, but on terminology which may not even be understood by a professional who teaches English classes. The test does absolutely nothing to gauge the readiness of a Pre-K teacher – or even a high school teacher – of any subject other than, perhaps, Advanced Placement English. (And even then this test begs for refinement.)
Consider my opinion as a professional educator who has written, read, and spoken English for many decades, reads dozens of books a year, writes every day, and has earned a doctorate. I struggled through these tests. How would that same test go for a person for whom English is a second language?
A case in point is Dr. Angello Villarreal, a Spanish teacher at Freehold Township High School. He passed reading and mathematics on his first try, but writing seemed impossible. After taking the exam nine times at a cost of $810, he finally passed. He shared with me: “My first son was born, and as a young father I almost gave up as I needed to save money and work more knowing that student-teaching (not paid) was coming.”
This Praxis Core writing exam could have stopped Dr. Villarreal from being an educator. But the test did not reflect his writing ability; he has published numerous articles, a dissertation, and a book chapter.
If the material assessed in the Core Praxis Exam needs to be tested at all, it should be elsewhere in the English Praxis II Subject test, not in an assessment that must be passed to become a teacher of any subject.
The same is true for the Core Praxis Mathematics test. It goes well beyond the numeracy and arithmetic skills that all teachers need. Those higher-level mathematics skills should be assessed in the relevant Praxis II Subject Tests, not in this complex test that even kindergarten teachers must somehow pass.
This is especially critical as New Jersey moves to universal Pre-K, which will require thousands of new teachers. These tests will screen out many prospective educators by demanding skills they will never, ever need.
Yes, rigorous tests are needed to maintain quality. If these Core Skills tests assessed the sort of reading, writing and mathematics skills that we would expect of any educated person, I could understand why we would require that all prospective teachers pass them. But these tests are way off the mark.
If you still believe the three Core Praxis tests should remain a blanket requirement for all teachers, no matter what they teach, please take them yourselves. You’ll quickly see what I mean.