Is Michigan Turning Away Good Teachers?

Written by: Jason Burns

Primary Source: Green & Write

Photo Courtesy of Alberto G.

Photo Courtesy of Alberto G.

In late 2013, the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) announced changes to the examination prospective teachers are required to pass in order to obtain a Michigan teaching certificate. Specifically, the difficulty of the Professional Readiness Examination (PRE), which is considered a test of the basic skills a teacher needs to be effective, was set at a high level. Since then, a much lower percentage of prospective teachers have been able to qualify for a Michigan teaching license. While MDE holds that increasing the rigor of the PRE is an important policy to improve the quality of Michigan’s teaching corps, research suggests that a higher benchmark on certification exams may not achieve this aim.

The New PRE

The PRE is the successor to the Basic Skills test, which was previously required for teacher certification in Michigan. With a pass rate of 82%, this examination came to be seen as too easy and ineffective at screening out individuals who lacked the basic knowledge needed to be an effective teacher.

A straightforward solution to this seemed to be to increase the difficulty of the test, which would improve the quality of Michigan’s teacher pool by preventing those who lacked basic skills from becoming licensed teachers.

Moving in this direction, MDE convened a standard-setting group to identify “the level of content knowledge needed to effectively perform the job of a qualified Michigan educator.” The input received from this group led to MDE setting a higher bar to pass the new PRE.


Passing rates for the PRE are significantly lower than they were the for Basic Skills test.

According to a legislative report for 2013-2014 by MDE on its teacher certification tests, only 20% of the individuals who took the examination passed it on the first try; although those who do not pass the PRE are able to re-take the test. By July 2014, 30.5% of those who attempted the test were able to pass it.

Pass rates varied considerably across the institutions that prepare Michigan’s teachers. At the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, 71% of those who attempted the test passed by July of 2014. However, this cumulative pass rate was 20% or less at Alma College, Baker College, Ferris State University, University of Michigan-Dearborn, University of Michigan-Flint, Wayne State University, and Western Michigan University.

Though these results have provoked some criticism of the PRE (additional criticism can be found here), it has been defended by officials at MDE and in the Michigan House of Representatives, claiming that low pass rates reflect a lack of knowledge on the part of prospective teachers rather than issues with the test or performance standards.

Will the PRE Improve the Teacher Talent Pool?

Preventing unskilled teachers from entering the profession would indeed improve the quality of the average teacher entering the classroom. However, it is unclear whether or how the PRE will accomplish this.

Theoretically, teachers with a more solid grasp of knowledge and skills should be better able to facilitate students’ learning. In reality, however, effective teaching is far more complex and unfortunately there is little consistent evidence indicating exactly t what makes teachers effective.

Research has found that only about 8% of the differences in student achievement can be attributed to teachers and only 3% of that can be attributed to the combined impact of teachers’ certification, ACT/SAT scores, degrees, and experience. Since ACT and SAT scores are also considered measures of basic skills and knowledge, it seems unlikely that performance on the PRE will be a strong indicator of a prospective teacher’s effectiveness.

Because teachers’ examination scores have been found to be only weak predictors of their impact on student learning, an assessment that has a low pass rate by design may prevent some who would be effective teachers from obtaining a teaching certificate, a concern that is supported by research.

A study by Dan Goldhaber, a professor at the University of Washington, concluded that the adoption of higher passing scores on a teacher certification exam could eliminate many more effective teachers from the labor market than ineffective ones. This research found that higher passing requirements on a certification exam would eliminate roughly 7.5% of teachers, but that less than .5% of this group would be considered ineffective with the remaining 7% being effective teachers. In other words, for every ineffective teacher removed from the teacher pool by a higher passing score on a certification exam, 14 effective teachers would also be removed.

Based on these findings, it can be inferred that using Michigan’s PRE to improve the quality of the average new teacher is at best inefficient and at worst counterproductive.

Improving the quality of instruction that students receive is an important goal, but unfortunately it is difficult to determine whether someone will be an effective teacher before they begin teaching. So difficult in fact that a review of research on teacher certification and preparation concluded that “the research evidence is simply too thin to have serious implications for policy.” Because of this, it may be wise to reconsider the use of high passing scores to reduce the number of prospective teachers, especially before MDE revamps its subject matter tests required for a teaching license in Michigan, which is currently underway.

Jason Burns –

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Jason Burns
Jason Burns is a second-year doctoral student in Educational Policy. His research interests include the application of theories from economics, behavioral economics, and psychology to understand how teachers, students, and administrators use information to make decisions. Before coming to MSU, Jason taught high school social studies, wrote curriculum, and developed assessments for Howard County Public Schools in suburban Maryland. Jason holds a bachelor’s degree from Kent State University and a master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University.