So you want to be a teacher in Nebraska? Take this test.
Kendra Smith, 18, is approaching a hurdle faced by all new teacher candidates in Nebraska.
The Omaha North High School graduate will attempt to pass a test of basic skills this month to enter the teacher preparation program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
It's a “make or break” moment, she said. Smith knows people who bombed on the state-mandated test, and others who passed “with flying colors.”
If she passes, her remaining path to certification should be smooth sailing: get her degree, do the coursework, student teach.
Nebraska officials, however, may throw another hurdle in her path, one that could eventually result in better teachers in classrooms across the state.
The Nebraska Board of Education may require Smith and other students to pass a second state test before they're turned loose in the classroom.
The test, probably administered close to graduation, would measure content knowledge, a teacher candidate's grasp of the academic subject matter she or he is licensed to teach.
In Massachusetts, which already requires such tests, would-be biology teachers take a biology test, chemistry teachers a chemistry test. Even dance teachers take a dance test.
This month, Iowa began requiring content tests for teacher candidates, leaving Nebraska and Montana as the only states without them.
The content tests would be phased in over several years.
In the short term, Nebraska officials plan to set a higher passing score for the basic skills test. The state's current target is among the lowest nationally.
Although that wouldn't have an impact on Smith, it would raise the bar for future candidates.
The changes contemplated by the state reflect a national trend toward holding teachers colleges more accountable for the quality of the students they produce.
The National Council on Teacher Quality, an organization that reviews teacher preparation in the states, recommends content testing.
The council gave Nebraska a grade of D-minus for the quality of its teacher preparation; Iowa received a D.
Flight attendants, lawyers, doctors and engineers take tests for licensing, said Sandi Jacobs, the council's vice president.
“There's no reason to think that most teachers wouldn't come out of their programs and do fine on a content test,” Jacobs said of the proposed Nebraska change. “But why not make sure we're screening out anybody who wouldn't be fine?”
Nebraska officials for years maintained that content testing was not necessary to produce good teachers, said Sharon Katt, administrator of adult program services for the Nebraska Department of Education.
With nearly all states now requiring the tests, Katt said, “it just no longer makes any sense” for Nebraska to hold out.
Currently, a would-be teacher's content knowledge is gauged by the courses she or he has passed and the grade-point average.
“We continue to hear in many venues that Nebraska produces good people, but when challenged to prove it, we don't have a lot of hard data to use,” Katt said.
Nebraska candidates who want to practice in other states would benefit by having a content score to show officials there, she said.
Becky Schnabel, coordinator of student services in the UNO College of Education, said she believes UNO's students are well prepared, but she's OK with content testing.
The school's program is accredited and adheres to national standards, she said, and the recruitment of Nebraska teachers by other states shows they're well-prepared.
Most education students at UNO take coursework that is very similar to that of someone majoring in a particular academic discipline, she said.
“Mathematics students take three levels of calculus and number theory and all the things that math majors take, so I don't think the question is 'Do we have the content?'” Schnabel said.
She said, however, that testing will help students get licensed in other states, and it could be helpful in identifying weaknesses in preparation and fixing them.
The difference between basic skills tests and content tests comes down to breadth and depth.
For instance, a practice test for Nebraska's basic skills test asks: Which of the following is equal to a quarter of a million? The answer choices are: 40,000; 250,000; 2,500,000;,000,000 or 4/1,000,000. The correct answer is 250,000.
Nebraska has not decided what battery of content tests it would use, but a question on a commonly used math content test asks: What is the units digit of 33 to the 408th power?
The answer — of course — is 1.
That problem might be found on a test to be endorsed for fifth- through 12th-grade math.
Nebraska state officials say the minimum scores on the admissions test are too low.
Schnabel said UNO officials recently set a higher threshold than the state requires.
Nebraska has been using a test called the Praxis I since the 1980s, and the cutoff scores have remained the same.
Nebraska sets its passing scores as follows: reading, 170; math, 171; writing, 172 — or a composite of 513, with no single subject score less than one point below each minimum.
Last year, UNO set its passing scores at 173 across the board.
The change had little effect on enrollment, Schnabel said.
Eighty-five percent of UNO's candidates pass the test the first time, she said.
State officials don't have a record of how many candidates fail the test and seek another career.
Jacobs said cutoff scores have to be set high to ensure good candidates.
Iowa sets its admissions bar about the same as Nebraska's, but on Iowa's new content tests, the bar is not high.
Students must score in the top 75 percent of test-takers nationwide, “a minimal standard,” said Staci Hupp, spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Education.
Smith, who will get her crack at the Nebraska basic skills test soon, graduated in the top 15 percent of her high school class.
She said she doesn't plan on studying for her first try.
“I want to get a feel for it, take it as a practice run,” she said.
Kyle Dunbar, who ranked in the top 15 percent of his class at Papillion-La Vista High School, passed the test on his first try.
The test was “relatively easy,” said Dunbar, 20.
Katelyn Kukoly, 19, took the test last fall, passing as easily as the others.
“I just went in and took it, no prep,” she said. “It didn't seem difficult.”
She was a 4.0 student at Fremont High School.
As for content testing, she said that although it may be “a pain” for students like her, she understands the desire to improve teacher quality.
“I can name teachers that I've had that were unsatisfactory,” she said.
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