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Teacher competency testing: what are special education teachers expected to know?

ABSTRACT: Teacher competency testing (TCT) is a current manifestation of education reform 48 of the 50 states are actively planning or implementing teacher testing programs, and 25 (plus the Distrrict of Columbia) are developing or administering tests in specific subject areas to include special education. This article presents the results of a nationwide survey that addressed TCT in special education. Responses were collected from 46 states and the District of Columbia. Analyses of results revealed that states vary in their use of teacher competency tests and that specific special education teacher competency tests are used or being actively studied in about half the states. Implications for the practice of special education are provided.

* Teacher competency testing (TCT) is a manifestation of educational reform that has moved rapidly across the nation. With 48 of 50 states

Alaska and Iowa are the exceptions) actively planning or implementing teacher testing programs in some manner (Rudner, 1988), TCT is a general phenomenon, intertwined with many specific concerns. For example, some professionals believe the rights of teachers are at risk when questions of competence go public (e.g., Shanker, 1986). Others have argued that identifying skills and competencies that are appropriate for widespread assessment is problematic (Berry, Noblit, & Hare, 1985; Hilliard, 1986). Still others believe that the teaching profession does not enjoy widespread popularity and any additional burdens placed on "entry-level skills" will create less interest and greater gaps in existing and new teacher supplies (Cole, 1986).

These arguments against TCT are popular and persuasive. Viewed as a rights issue, concerns about who rules the schools are forceful; that is, when the rights of educators and the rights of the public are opposed, clear basis for controversy exists. Both state boards of education and state legislative bodies have passed laws mandating TCT as a result of social, political, and economic pressure (Gifford, 1986; Porter & Freeman, 1986: Sandefur, 1986, 1988; Schlechty & Vance, 1981; Starr, 1983). Should the public be appeased by placing test requirements on teachers and other school personnel? Many educators have found these tests appropriate for professionals, if they are fair and consistent (Shanker, 1986), whereas others have viewed them as insulting, due to critical analyses of the specific content of the tests themselves (McDaniel, 1982; Rudner, (1987). The latter position is based on the belief held by many Americans that incompetent teachers are the major problem affecting student achievement (Farr & Olshavsky, 1980; Haefele, 1980).

Identifying appropriate areas to be assessed is another area of concern for many educators. States that test basic skills appear to be questioning the fundamental literacy skills of teachers in reading, math, writing, and speaking. Tests that look at professional knowledge or subject content are seeking to determine whether the teacher has a sufficient pedagogical knowledge base to teach in general, or in a specific area requiring specialized training and certification (Porter & Freeman, 1986). Test content focused on professional knowledge or subject content seems to be considered less belittling to teachers and more in line with tests administered by other disciplines such as law, medicine, pharmacy, or forestry.

Another concern stems from the gradual, but drastic, change in teacher supply and demand observed in many areas of the United States (Cole, 1986). Recently accessible opportunities that offer greater prestige, higher advancement levels, and higher salaries are luring many would-be teacher candidates especially women and minorities) away from the teaching field. Thus, a diminishing pool of teacher-preparation candidates is present at many traditionally oriented teacher education colleges (Paschal, 1987; Sedlak & Schlossman, 1986). The central dilemma is that states are now imposing higher qualifications for a pool of available candidates whose numbers appear to have lessened dramatically during the time the public was advocating TCT (Holmes, 1986).

Competence testing of teachers by states across the nation is accomplished in a variety of ways. Some states test both general and specific educators alike on basic skills or professional knowledge assessments along with subject area specialty tests. Some states issue endorsements to teaching fields on completion of approved programs in special education, whereas others add endorsements following the completion of initial certification requirements. Standardized tests may be given to determine entry to a teacher preparation program, or upon exit. Testing in some states is for initial certification only; in others, tests are used to recertify practicing teachers as well. Any number of combinations of these practices can be found (Sandefur, 1986); however, few reports of the TCT practices applied in special education are available (Ramsey, 1988). The purpose of this research was to identify (a) which states test special educators with subject area specialty tests, (b) which special education categories are included in the tests, and (c) the objectives developed for these tests by which special educators are directed to study. This research was deemed appropriate and timely as a basis for identifying core knowledge expected of special education teachers, for determining the extent to which important knowledge or skill information is being overlooked in the states as they test or prepare to test teachers, and for providing information of use to administrators, teacher trainers, and other professionals.


A survey was performed nationwide, addressing TCT in special education. A listing of each state's director of special education (or a similarly titled administrator) was obtained through services of The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) in Reston, Virginia. Letters of inquiry addressed to these chief state officials specifically asked for the list of objectives on which special education teachers are tested and information about the type of test they must take, if any. The state directors replied with various combinations of responses such as, (a) names of special education categories tested with corresponding objectives, (b) explanations of testing procedures in place or under study, and (c) names of contact persons responsible for testing within their state. Information was received from the contact person in most instances with no further inquiry; in others, letters were sent to the person identified. A 75% response was obtained during the first round of inquiries.

A second round of letters was sent to state contact persons listed in the recent publication of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, entitled "What's happening in teacher testing: An analysis of state teacher testing practices" (Rudner, 1987, pp. 143-145). The same information was requested, and 17% of these state officials responded.

In all, responses to the survey were received from 46 states and the District of Columbia. Follow-up telephone calls were made to state officials when further clarification was needed. Educational Testing Service (ETS) officials in the Atlanta, Georgia, office also assisted in clarifying data received from states in which services are contracted. Information was assembled and checked for consistency with Rudner's (1987) analysis; data concerning testing of teachers from the four nonresponding states were verified from this source. Materials received from officials in responding states were analyzed using the following procedures. First, specific subject area tests administered in the state were recorded. Next, categorical areas included in teacher competency tests in the state were recorded. Finally, content areas of knowledge assessed by these tests were noted; these analyses were completed using categories of knowledge presented in Ramsey (1988).

Tabular presentations reflect which states test special educators with subject area specialty tests, which special education categories are included in the tests, and which objectives developed for these tests would be most appropriate for special educators to study. Summaries of these presentations of data were compiled and represented as results of the survey.


In general, states that use specialty area tests do so in a number of ways. Some use customized tests developed through the services of the National Evaluation System (NES). A substantial number of states administer the Mental Retardation (MR) test or the generic Special Education (SE) test, along with the Core Battery and Professional Knowledge tests of the National Teacher Examinations (NTE). A summary of the status of TCT and specific special education content areas tested by responding states are presented in Table 1.

State Responses

Specialty area tests in special education are administered, or are in the process of being developed or adopted, in 25 of the responding states and in the District of Columbia. Of these, 8 use customized tests developed in cooperation with NES or by the state solely (as a project within that state). In another 17 states 34%), the MR-NTE or generic SE-NTE test is given through the services of ETS, or the more recently developed tests by ETS for other special education exceptionality areas are actively being studied. The practices of special education TCT are still under study in the remaining states. Overlapping practices continue in a few states where existing tests are administered while new ones are being developed.

Several states have contracted with ETS for the development of the following special education subject area tests: visually handicapped, hearing impaired, orthopedically impaired, learning disabled, and emotionally disturbed. Arkansas administers the MR-NTE test and recently completed validation efforts for tests in these teaching areas: visually handicapped, hearing impaired, learning disabled, and emotionally disturbed. Oregon and Kentucky have established cut-off scores for the generic Special Education (SE-NTE) test. Personnel in Mississippi and North Carolina recently completed validation efforts and plan to implement tests in the following subject areas-visually handicapped, hearing impaired, orthopedically impaired, emotionally disturbed, and learning disabled (in North Carolina only)-along with the currently administered speech pathology and MR-NTE tests.

New York, a user of the MR-NTE test, has completed validation studies for tests for the hearing impaired and visually handicapped areas and recently began administering these tests. Tennessee has finished validation studies and will be requiring the SE-NTE, along with the visual and hearing impaired tests in the near future. South Carolina has finished validation studies and has plans to begin administering tests in all five new testing areas, along with the currently administered MR-NTE test. Virginia is continuing to use the MR-NTE test, administering tests in emotionally disturbed and learning disabled areas to obtain standardized cut-off scores; Virginia is also studying the appropriateness of giving the NTE tests in these areas: orthopedically impaired, visually handicapped, and hearing impaired. Maryland and Hawaii continue to give the SE-NTE test. Louisiana certifies special education teachers in generic service delivery level; however, professionals in the state use the MR-NTE to certify out-of-state candidates for teaching positions.

A few states combine the NTE categorically developed tests with customized examinations by the same test producer. Pennsylvania tests in the special education certification areas of visually impaired, hearing impaired, speech/language impaired, along with an NTE customized examination in mentally/physically handicapped. Similarly, Indiana administers tests in visually impaired and hearing impaired, along with those in educable and trainable mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, learning disabled, and physically handicapped. Michigan, Ohio, Nevada, and New Jersey represent states with strong potential for becoming users of special education categorical tests developed by ETS in the near future.

Illinois and West Virginia have developed customized state tests for the special education categories of mental retardation, learning disabilities, emotionally disturbed, physically handicapped and speech/language impaired. Illinois also tests in the areas of visually impaired, hearing impaired, and deaf; and West Virginia, in preschool handicapped. The District of Columbia has recently completed a validation study for a special testing program, which includes testing in special education. Two other states considering testing within special education content areas are Wisconsin and Washington.

Through the services of NES, Alabama administers customized tests in all categories of special education, to include gifted and talented and early childhood handicapped. Oklahoma and Texas administer customized tests through NES in the areas of mental retardation, learning disabilities, emotionally disturbed, visually and hearing impaired, physically handicapped, generic special education, and in Texas only, speech/language impairment and physically handicapped. Georgia continues to administer subject area tests in mental retardation, and to teachers of the interrelated special education areas of learning disabilities, behavior disorders, and mild mental handicaps through NES services, while developing separate categorical tests in these areas through the Georgia Assessment Project.

Summary of Special Education Objectives Tested by States

Special education teacher competency tests are used in 20 states; 15 states have defined their criteria for testing through published objectives. The content reflected by objectives received from states includes the following: (a) basic knowledge and historical aspects, (b) identification and characteristics of special needs students, (c) processing skills, (d) assessment, (e) learning theory, (f) teaching strategies, (g) instructional content, (h) instructional materials, (i) administrative alternatives, and (j) ancillary services. Specific objectives tested in these 15 states are illustrated in Table 2.

Basic Knowledge and Historical Aspects. The need is evident in these general objectives for special educators to be familiar with the mandates (i.e., laws, regulations, and policies) that apply to or have a bearing on special education operations and procedures in their respective states and local districts. The federal mandates upon which state and local levels are based are overwhelmingly required in objectives issued. Knowledge of the major provisions of public laws, in particular Public Law 94-142, must be studied. The objectives are generic in perspective, and include the need for a philosophical orientation. Moreover, this section includes the professional obligation all educators have for assuring that children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education-for ethical as well as mandated reasons.

Characteristics. It is important that educators be able to recognize characteristics of a physical, emotional, developmental, behavioral, and educational nature that occur to the extent that special services are required. Objectives stipulate the need for special educators to know major identifiable characteristics by which they are generally associated with a particular exceptionality category for treatment. All exceptional categories included in P.L. 94-142 were listed in state objectives. The category of "gifted" was mentioned by the majority of states; however, a lesser number of objectives addressed this category. Very few state objectives saw the need for prevalency estimates and numbers of students served to be included in content reviewed.

Processing Skills. Questions have been raised concerning the relationship between perceptual skills of students and academic achievement. The majority of assessment tools used to diagnose processing deficits have proven inadequate; however, it is a fact that learners must receive information given them through receptive channels (e.g., visual, auditory, and haptic); use integrative skills to organize, store, react to, or retrieve acquired information; and make responses through expressive channels (i.e., motoric, written, and spoken). The use of perceptual avenues through which students acquire, integrate, and express information is referred to as the learner's information-processing skill.

Though this section is the least agreed upon, there is evidence that special educators are expected to be able to identify strengths and weaknesses in their students' processing skills. These objectives tend to focus on the need for familiarity with specific activities or teaching strategies that might be used to develop these skills further while students continue to pursue academic studies.

Assessment. Tests are administered to students throughout their schooling, whether the tests are preschool sensory screenings, teacher-made quizzes, or annual standardized assessments. Many special needs students are initially identified through the use of these tests and subsequently are referred for further assessment.

Testing presents new parameters from the time that a student is first suspected of having a condition that handicaps him or her in the educational arena. Advocates of TCT believe that teachers in special education need to know appropriate evaluation procedures for identification, placement, and program purposes. They also believe that the full, inidividualized assessment procedure, using instruments validated to test disability areas by those serving on the multidisciplinary team, should be fully understood to operate within the mandates of the law and, ultimately, to make important educational decisions about a student.

Objectives for TCT specify that special education teachers possess sufficient knowledge to be able to determine quantitative dimensions such as validity and reliability of tests, to recognize sound test content, and to choose appropriate tests for specific purposes. Special educators must be well trained in administering, scoring, and interpreting a variety of assessment instruments. Furthermore, they need to know how to use the results of tests that must be administered and scored by other professionals. Knowledge of observational methods used to assess academic and social behavior is still another area of skills for the special education teacher.

Assessment plays a vital role in the initial diagnosis, the decision to place, the planning of program goals and objectives, and ongoing diagnostic evaluation of the exceptional student. There is considerable agreement for the demonstration of conceptual knowledge in this area of competence across states.

Learning Theory. Teachers of exceptional students need knowledge that goes beyond the content of the subjects taught and the characteristics of normal child development. Exceptional students receive special education services because of physical, intellectual, or emotional differences that interfere with productive general education experiences. Special education teachers are expected to be familiar with techniques and strategies to develop each child's learning potential to the fullest. Advocates of TCT believe that special education teachers must have a thorough comprehension of the learning process, including the assimilation, storage, retrieval, and application of information. Objectives of state TCT programs specify that teachers understand behavior modification procedures. The effective teacher will acquire a conceptual knowledge of learning theory and will use its principles in a wide range of teaching situations so that students will be assisted toward generalizing behaviors across settings.

Teaching Strategies. General education teachers are trained to teach most students who progress through the U.S. educational system. Special educators are expected to know the fundamental processes and procedures used in general education, but they also should be able to apply the specialized methodology needed by exceptional students; and they must tailor specialized approaches to meet individual needs. A review of teaching strategy objectives underscores the need for special techniques when teaching basic skills. Students vary in their rate of learning, need for routine, ability to memorize or to retain what they learn, reasoning skills, and ability to generalize newly acquired concepts. Students must be able to progress from simple to more complex levels within a task hierarchy, to experience success, and to become independent learners to the greatest extent possible.

The special educator is expected to demonstrate knowledge about many instructional techniques and approaches. Advocates of TCT believe that this teacher must be able to recognize specific needs, must possess diagnostic capabilities, and must make the necessary environmental and instructional adaptations-all on an individual basis.

Instructional Content. Special educators must also have a thorough understanding of the content that is taught from kindergarten through 12th grade, for several important reasons. First, their students' functioning abilities could span all grade levels; second, special education teachers are responsible for being able to use unique techniques and approaches to teach content in required subject areas. The actual content and sequence of the concepts which the special needs learner must be taught is the same as that used with the regular student. However, because the student has been determined eligible for and placed in special education, the special educator must conceptually understand and apply special and related services.

The content areas of reading (vocabulary, decoding skills, comprehension), math (fact mastery, computational operations, reasoning, verbal problem solving), language arts, and social skills training are broad in scope, entail a specific instructional sequence that all learners must follow, and are basic to being able to succeed in other subject areas. Objectives in this section specify that the special educator have a full and complete understanding of both the sequential skills hierarchies, and the developmental stages through which learners progress, as well as be able to plan, predict, diagnose, and select from a variety of remedial techniques.

Instructional Materials. Some exceptional children require the use of special instructional methods and materials to achieve their academic potential. Therefore, the selection of appropriate instructional materials is represented in the TCT objectives of most states. Teachers of special needs students are expected to know that materials must be flexible to cover the repetitive practice needs of this population. There is agreement across states that teachers should understand the general characteristics of good instructional materials, such as quality, durability, and utility. Because of students' individual needs, some materials, such as flashcards, games, and charts, must be teacher made or teacher adapted.

Administrative Alternatives. The need for a placement decision occurs when it is decided by the multidisciplinary team that a student requires special education (i.e., specially designed instruction that meets the unique needs of an exceptional child) and related services (e.g., special transportation, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation, medical treatment, and counseling). This placement decision will involve consideration of factors such as degree and severity of the student's disabilities, current performance levels, extent of specialized teaching strategies and practices, and equipment and materials needed for the student to proceed.

The special education teacher serves as a member of the multidisciplinary team. Objectives received from states unanimously support the involvement of special educators in making decisions about the placements of special needs students; therefore, the teachers must be thoroughly aware of the placement options in the cascade system of services. The law requires placement in a least restrictive environment. As a member of the multidisciplinary team, the special education teacher assists in monitoring the development of the student's adaptive, social, cognitive, motor and language skills and recommends placement in a less restrictive environment when appropriate. Program exit criteria must also be in place and used accordingly.

Ancillary Services. Advocates of TCT also stress the need for teachers to understand the establishment and maintenance of close contact and communication between the district staff, each base school, and the various specialists (or consultants) providing ancillary services. The principles and methods of special education must be shared with regular educators, and tenets and practices of regular education must be conveyed to special educators.


More states are expected to follow the trend of TCT testing in specialty areas. Among states testing in the special education realm, five employ the services of the NES. In two states, Georgia and Alabama, litigation has been filed by major state education forces charging invalid uses of customized teacher competency tests. It is predicted that more states, like Georgia, will develop their own tests, or join in the coalition of states in adopting one or more of the nine special education tests available through ETS (i.e., Special Education, Mental Retardation, Audiology, Speech Pathology, Visually Handicapped, Hearing Impaired, Learning Disabled, Emotionally Disturbed, and Orthopedically Impaired).

Several issues must be addressed by states as they refine their purposes for TCT. Are states testing to appease the public, or is quality education the real goal? How is testing affecting teacher attrition and retention? Will higher standards increase the pool of minority candidates, or will other factors relating to job attraction outweigh the standards issue? More important, perhaps, decisions need to be made about the overall types of tests appropriate for assessing teacher competence. Finally, as more states join the TCT movement, demands will be made by educators for an agreement on reciprocity. A number of states have established an Interstate Certification Compact establishing reciprocity of state requirements for study and experience. Reciprocity will also need to be addressed in relation to TCT within specialty areas such as special education. Some states are considering using the NTE special education categorical tests for this reason.

Shanker (1986) forecasted an eventual national teacher examination, similar to those used for bar and medical licensure. The test would be developed by a commission composed of outstanding educators and similarly qualified people in other professions who have had some experience in administering professional examinations. To update and administer the examination, it is further recommended that there be a national Teachers' Professional Practices Board composed of teacher practitioners.

Whoever is charged with developing a national special education teacher competency test, it is clear that the movement will be a concern for the future. Twenty-five states (and the District of Columbia) are actively planning, validating, or implementing specialty tests, related to special education categories in special education; and 15 states have published criteria in the form of objectives that identify content specific to the special education teaching field.

Yet to be addressed is the willingess of states to relinquish their autonomy over TCT in their respective jurisdiction. Some states have just begun to deal with issues and concerns related to developing the test. Others are working diligently to keep up with the cyclical effects that education typically experiences when concerns of this type are addressed. And, of course, some states regard TCT as a legitimate, professional activity, but one that should be totally under the auspices of the state. Regardless of the perspective taken, it is clear that special education content is viewed as important in ongoing TCT programs. TABULAR DATA OMITTED


Berry, B., Noblit, G. W., & Hare, R. D. (1985). The qualitative critique of teacher labor market studies (Report No. SP 026 444). Research Triangle Park, NC: Southeastern Regional Council for Educational Improvement. Supported in part by the National Institute of Education, Department of Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 261 030)

Cole, B. P. (1986). The Black educator: An endangered species. The Journal of Negro Education ,55(3),326-334.

Farr, R., & Olshavsky, J. E. (1980). Is minimum competency testing the appropriate solution to the SAT decline? Phi Delta Kappan, 61(8), 528-536.

Gifford, B. R. (1986). Excellence and equity in teacher competency testing: A policy perspective. The Journal of Negro Education, 55(3), 251-273.

Haefele, D. L. (1980).'How to evaluate thee, teacherLet me count the ways.' Phi Delta Kappan, 61(2), 121-123.

Hilliard, A. G., Ill. (1986). From hurdles to standards of quality in teacher testing. The Journal of Negro Education, 55(3), 304-315.

Holmes, B. J. (1986). Do not buy the conventional wisdom: Minority teachers can pass the tests. The Journal of Negro Education, 55(3), 335-346.

McDaniel, T. R. (1982). Competency-based teacher certification: Is it really happening? The Teacher Educator, 8(2), 5-9.

Paschal, A. (1987). The qualifications of teachers in American high schools (Report No. N-2547-CSTP). Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation.

Porter, A. C., & Freeman, D. J. (1986). Professional orientations: An essential domain for teacher testing. The Journal of Negro Education, 55(3), 284-292.

Ramsey, R. S. (1988). Preparatory guide for special education teacher competency tests. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Rudner, L. M. (Proj. Dir.). (1987). What's happening in teacher testing: An analysis of state teacher testing practices. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education.

Rudner, L. M. (1988). Teacher testing-an update. Educational measurement: Issues and practices. 1(1), 16-19.

Sandefur, J. T. (1986). State assessment trends. AACTE Briefs, 7(6).

Sandefur, J. T. (1988). In R. S. Ramsey, Preparatory guide for special education teacher competnecy tests. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Schlechty, P. C., & Vance, V. S. (1981). Do academically able teachers leave education? The North Carolina case. Phi Delta Kappan, 63(2), 106-112.

Sedlak, M., & Schlossman, S. (1986). Who will teach? Historical perspectives on the changing appeal of teaching as a profession (Report No. R-3472-CSTP). Santa Monica, CA: The Rand Corporation.

Shanker, A. (1986). The making of a profession. The Journal of Negro Education, 55(3), 397-404.

Starr, N. K. (1983). Quality and quantity of applicants for teacher education rapidly diminishing. Education, 104(2), 150-154.


ROBERTA S. RAMSEY (CEC Chapter #25) is an Associate Professor of Education at Albany State College, Georgia. BOB ALGOZZINE (CEC Chapter # 147) is a Professor of Teaching Specialties at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Manuscript received December 1988; revision accepted July 1989.

Exceptional Children, Vol. 57, No. 4, pp. 339-350. [C] 1991 The Council for Exceptional Children.
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Author:Ramsey, Roberta S.; Algozzine, Bob
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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