MASSACHUSETTS — Five years after graduating with a double major in English and education, I decided to apply for a teaching certificate in Massachusetts. This spring, the state introduced two, four-hour teachers' tests that all certificate applicants must pass: a communication and literacy skills test and a subject area test. After the first two test administrations resulted in high failure rates, media reports blamed the poor performance on everything from incompetent examinees to unfair tests.
The launch of the test was peppered with problems. The first two groups of test-takers, who sat for the test in April and July, were told that qualifying scores wouldn't be set until after their tests and not used until the Oct. 3 testing. Yet the state failed large percentages of these would-be teachers.
When I received my registration bulletin for the October test, it still wasn't clear what the passing scores were. In addition, the bulletin mentioned a study guide that was prepared and available through the testing organization. In early August I requested a copy of the guide and was told that it had not yet been produced. On Sept. 23, I finally received a test-information booklet which had just been printed that month.
In preparation for the communication and literacy skills test, I reread a junior-high English grammar text. I found it helpful to review definitions of parts of speech and some of the more obscure grammar rules. The sample questions provided in the information booklet were fairly straightforward.
The booklet gave only one sample question for the English subject area test. The test objectives concerned me because a number of the topics were ones I never covered in my college coursework.
At the test site, I was in a cramped classroom crunched into a tiny high-school desk. The desk surface was only slightly bigger than the answer sheet I had to write on, so I had to hold my question booklet the whole time. The sun was in my eyes, but the test monitor wouldn't let us turn our desks a bit to shade our eyes. Although these conditions were poor, I finished feeling that the communication and literacy skills test itself was reasonable.
Within a half hour, I was back for the English subject test. I found this test very difficult. A number of the questions related to specific authors, periods, styles, and literary theories that my college coursework hadn't covered. Although I studied various periods of British and American literature, I didn't take classes specifically focused on journalism, world literature, minority literature, or the history of English. I could frequently narrow the answer down to two choices, but I didn't know enough detail to be sure of one answer. The world of literature is very broad, and I doubt that any undergraduate English program covers all the areas included in this test.
If the majority of the failing examinees failed the communication and literacy skills test, I understand the uproar about incompetence. Well-educated high school students, and certainly prospective teachers, should be able to answer most of the questions. If most people actually failed the subject-area test, however, I understand the outcries about an unfair test. I'd have to take an additional set of college courses to cover all the material included in that test. I plan to teach middle-school English. I feel that my college program prepared me well for that work, but I'd need a master's degree in English to feel confident taking that test again.
* Sandy Nager, who holds a degree in English and education, looks forward to receiving her test results soon.