Rigorous or Rigor-less?

Report from teacher ed watchdog group finds education majors consistently rank among the highest G.P.A. earners, which it attributes to fact that many assignments in education courses don't adequately measure student skills. 

November 12, 2014

Education departments systematically award higher grades than do other academic departments at their universities, according to a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality, which links those high grades with a certain type of low-caliber assignment commonly found on the syllabuses of education courses.

The report, "Easy A's and What's Behind Them,"  found that an average of 44 percent of education majors qualified to graduate with honors, compared to an average 30 percent of all graduating students, and that education courses were twice as likely as courses in other departments to give students a certain category of assignments, dubbed “criterion-deficient,” that aligned with higher class grades.   

The paper argues that the combination of a large proportion of assignments that don’t adequately measure skills and high grades misleads teacher candidates into believing they’re well-prepared for the first year in the classroom. Yet most teachers struggle in their first year of teaching, according to the NCTQ.

“If grades do not provide a clear measure of competency, preparation programs are sending teacher candidates faulty signals about their actual readiness to teach,” the report states.

The NCTQ has been writing critically about teacher prep programs for nearly a decade. Many of the council’s more recent papers associated with its national review of programs have been widely denounced by colleges, however.

Critics say the council’s reports rely on assumptions and faulty data, especially when measuring quality based on documents such as course descriptions and syllabuses, rather than classroom observations. Teacher education groups issued a similar series of complaints about this report.

Kate Walsh, president of the NCTQ and one of the report’s authors, said the project was spurred by anecdotal evidence that suggested completing a teacher prep program is easier than completing other academic programs.  

Based on information about majors and G.P.A.-based honors recipients in recent commencement brochures from 509 colleges and universities, the NCTQ concluded that education majors were more likely than graduates of other fields on the same campus to earn honors. Education was the only major that was consistently in the top third in terms of the proportion of honors graduates, Walsh said.

To find an explanation for the high grades, the authors analyzed course assignments on syllabuses for 1,161 courses, in education as well as in business, psychology, nursing, history and others.

The report divides assignments into two categories: criterion-referenced and criterion-deficient. The latter are characterized by broad, sweeping assignments that offer endless opportunities for student responses.

“These features force grading decisions based less on substance than on superficial features such as completeness, presentation qualities, and so on,” the report states.

Walsh pointed out that criterion-deficient assignments aren’t necessarily easy and are often time-consuming. 

Criterion-referenced courses, on the other hand, limit the parameters of the assignment, so that the range of student answers will be not be as wide. They give teachers the opportunity to offer clear feedback on whether a student has mastered a certain skill or what’s likely to be effective in specific teaching situations.

The report acknowledges as one of its limitations that there was no way to know how individual professors graded or provided feedback on assignments, whether they were referenced or deficient.

Seventy-one percent of assignments in education courses qualified as criterion-deficient, compared to 34 percent of assignments on the syllabuses of other disciplines.

Across all disciplines, as the percent of grades based on “criterion-deficient” assignments rises, so does the average course grade, according to the report. That finding is based on seven colleges where average course grades were publicly available.

The average difference in any type of course is more than half a letter grade when comparing a course with no criterion-deficient assignments to one with all criterion-deficient assignments.

When asked whether the council took into consideration past criticism about using syllabuses to assess courses, Walsh said she doesn’t understand why reading syllabuses isn't adequate for research on courses, when departments turn syllabuses over to accrediting bodies, state agencies and deans for various forms of analysis and approval.

“For all this shouting about course syllabi, I just keep waiting to get this proof that what we’re doing is unfair, and it’s never provided,” she said.

While NCTQ looked at the data and formed its conclusions, teacher educators looked at the same information and saw something else entirely.

For example, Walsh cites research that says student achievement in novice teacher’s classrooms tends to be lower than that of students with teachers who have at least a few years' experience. That suggests, according to the report, that completing a prep program doesn’t ensure a successful first year of teaching.

Linda Houser, on the other hand, pointed to research that compared the standardized test results of children taught by certified teachers with uncertified teachers. That suggests, she said, that the programs do prepare candidates.

Houser is the president-elect of the Association of Teacher Educators. She hadn’t read NCTQ’s latest report but commented on the general findings after talking with Inside Higher Ed.

She reiterated previous complaints that syllabuses often give only a brief description of assignments. She also disagreed with the idea the subjective assignments were not useful teaching tools.  

“We’re preparing future teachers to work with children who are not all alike,” Houser said. “…Teaching is not a one-answer-fits-all profession.”

Finally, using commencement brochures to tally the frequency of high grades is misleading, as honors requirements vary between departments, she said. Depending on the school, education majors take anywhere from 60 to 75 percent of their coursework outside the school of education, meaning the majority of their G.P.A. could be determined by classes in other departments.

“These facts cast serious doubts that education majors have high G.P.A.s because they are education majors,” Houser said. “It’s tunnel vision, in my opinion, because [the NCTQ has] an agenda.”

If there’s a public perception that education is an easy major, it’s because certain news media and groups such as the NCTQ have perpetuated that misperception, Houser said.

The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education also criticized the report, saying it relied on insufficient evidence and sample sizes.

Even if syllabuses and commencement brochures were accurate representations of rigor and candidate performance, only half the colleges that have teacher prep programs provided enough information to perform the analysis, Sharon Robinson, president of the association, said in an email.

Moreoever, the relationship posed between criterion-deficient assignments and higher grades is based on a sample of only seven colleges where course grades happened to be available publicly, she said.

“What this report really does is to highlight the importance of fully and accurately assessing teaching candidates and their readiness to practice,” she said, adding that that’s already a focus of those within teacher prep programs.

The "Easy A’s" report launches the council’s newest standard for its annual review of programs. The “rigor” standard will be measured in part by the percentage of honors earned compared to other graduates on the same campus. 


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