Costly New Testing Program Certifies Few Teachers
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
More than a year after it was launched, a privately run teacher certification program backed by $40 million in federal grants is accepted in only five states and has certified only a half dozen teachers.
The program, known as the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE), grew out of a $5 million federal grant awarded in 2001 to two nonprofit think tanks -- the National Council on Teacher Quality and the Education Leaders Council -- to develop a streamlined process to certify teachers.
The groups launched ABCTE, which requires applicants to pass two online tests. Its goal was to make it easier and cheaper for professionals to change careers and enter the classroom, even though they might lack a bachelor's degree in education and the student teaching usually required for certification.
In 2003, the U.S. Department of Education gave ABCTE a five-year $35 million operational grant and promised that those certified under the program would be deemed "highly qualified" under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.
That federal law requires all of the nation's public school teachers to be state-certified, hold a bachelor's degree and prove their subject knowledge by the spring of 2006.
But only Florida, Idaho, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania recognize ABCTE. And only Florida automatically certifies people who pass the testing.
The other three states require individuals who pass the ABCTE tests to meet additional requirements for certification, such as completing a mentoring program with an experienced teacher or passing a series of professional development courses.
The Utah State Board of Education voted in November to accept ABCTE's mathematics tests as a part of the state's existing alternative certification program.
Texas is "in the planning stages of a statewide pilot programaimed at incorporatingthe ABCTEinto its certification process," said Christi Martin at the Texas Education Agency.
Moreover, only 13 prospective teachers have gone through the program so far, and just six of them have found teaching jobs, ABCTE spokeswoman Abbe Daly told Stateline.org.
Another 109 applicants are taking part in the program but have not completed the testing, she said.
After paying $500, would-be certified teachers can download preparation materials or sign up for online courses to prepare for a test on teaching techniques and a subject test covering elementary education, mathematics or English. They also must hold a bachelor's degree and pass a criminal background check.
Randy Thompson, vice president of marketing and business for ABCTE, said the program has succeeded in its initial goal of creating "valid, rigorous exams" despite the small numbers of participants.
"Early on, there were those who said this is nothing more than an exam," Thompson said. "This is not a test only, this is a process: an accelerated, individualized program," he said.
David Griffith, a spokesman for the National Association of State Boards of Education, called ABCTE a "financial boondoggle."
"(The program) is a solution in search of a problem," he said. "All 50 states already have alternative certification programs."
In fact, there are 89 alternative teacher certification programs across the nation; 60 percent of them require practice teaching and 85 percent require prospective teachers to take the same written tests for both the traditional and alternative certifications, according to a 2004 report by the U.S. Department of Education.
Eric Hirsch, a researcher at the Southeast Center for Teacher Quality, said the more demanding alternative routes to teaching are producing more educators.
Hirsch cited the Troops to Teachers program, which gives retiring military personnel $5,000 towards completing a state's teacher certification requirements. It placed 404 teachers in classrooms within a year of its 1994 launch, and has placed 6,533 teachers in its 10-year history.
The tepid response to ABCTE may be just the start of its problems. U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) has asked the federal Government Accountability Office to investigate whether grants were awarded because of the program's ties to Deputy Secretary Eugene Hickok, who today (Dec. 2) announced his resignation from the Department of Education -- his resignation is unrelated to Rep. Miller's charges. Hickok was a co-founder of the Education Leaders Council, one of the groups that developed the testing program, before he joined the Department of Education at the beginning of President George W. Bush's first term.
A press release from Miller also cites reports that two out of three Department of Education reviewers rejected ABCTE's grant requests.
"The awarding of these grants to applicants who do not appear to meet the standards proscribed for grantees in the statute or by independent peer reviewers raises serious questions," Miller said in a prepared statement. "The association of these grantees to high-ranking Department of Education officials compounds these concerns."
Editor's note: ABCTE takes exception to this report. See ABCTE President Kathleen Madigan's Letter to the Editor.