Iowa vs. Florida and Massachusetts, Part 3

Why are Florida and Massachusetts ahead of Iowa in NAEP 4th grade reading?  After the jump are some thoughts on where to start looking for answers: teacher testing, standards and school reform.

Teacher Testing

Massachusetts requires aspiring teacher candidates to pass specified Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure.

The Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure program was initiated by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 1998 as part of our statewide education reform initiative for educators seeking PreKindergarten to grade 12 licenses. The MTEL program includes a test of communication and literacy skills as well as tests of subject matter knowledge. The tests are designed to ensure that Massachusetts educators can communicate adequately with students, parents/guardians, and other educators and that they are knowledgeable in the subject matter of the license sought.

Candidates for licenses in Early Childhood (PreK-2), Elementary (1-6), and Teachers of Students of Moderate Disabilities (all levels) are required to take a Foundations of Reading exam in addition to another subject matter exam.  The Foundations of Reading test objectives include demonstrating understanding of phonological and phonemic awareness and the role of phonics in promoting reading development.  A passing score is a scaled score of 240 or higher.  The Communication and Literacy Skills test consists of seventy-seven multiple choice questions, seven short answer and  two open response questions.  The Early Childhood test consists of one hundred multiple choice questions and two open response questions.  The General Curriculum test consists of one hundred multiple choice questions, forty-five of which are in mathematics, and two open response questions, one of which is in mathematics.  The Foundation of Reading test consists of one hundred multiple choice questions and two open response questions.

In March 2010, only 63.1% of first time test takers passed the Foundations of Reading test, 61.2% passed the General Curriculum: Multi-Subject test, and 58% passed the General Curriculum : Mathematics test.  Only 56.3% passed the Early Childhood test.  The number of test questions and these pass rates suggest that Massachusetts requires applicants to demonstrate a relatively broad scope and high level of content knowledge for obtaining teacher licensure.  Compare this to Iowa, which requires a passing score on the Praxis Elementary Education: Content Knowledge (0014) or the Praxis Elementary Education: Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment (0011).  Test 0011 is two hours, 110 multiple choice questions, only approximately thirty-eight  of which cover reading and language arts and twenty-two on mathematics.  Test 0014 is two hours, 120 multiple choice questions, only approximately thirty of which cover reading and language arts (only half of which cover foundations of reading topics) and thirty  on mathematics.  By my calculations, Massachusetts licensure applicants submit to twelve hours of testing covering perhaps twice as many mathematics questions and almost seven times as many foundations of reading questions (depending upon which Praxis exam is selected by the applicant).

Practice MTEL tests are available here complete with tables to compute a scaled-score.  Sample Praxis II test questions are available here.


Florida standards specifically require that “[t]he student demonstrates knowledge of the alphabetic principle and applies grade level phonics skills to read text.” (Emphasis added).  Consider the Guiding Principle 2 of the Massachusetts English Language Arts Curriculum Framework:

An effective English language arts curriculum develops students’ oral language and literacy through appropriately challenging learning.

A well planned English language arts instructional program provides students with a variety of oral language activities, high-quality and appropriate reading materials, and opportunities to work with others who are reading and writing. In the primary grades, systematic phonics instruction and regular practice in applying decoding skills to decodable materials are essential elements of the school program. Reading to preschool and primary grade children plays an especially critical role in developing children’s vocabulary, their knowledge of the natural world, and their appreciation for the power of the imagination. Beyond the primary grades, students continue to refine their skills through speaking, listening, viewing, reading, and writing.  (Emphasis added).

Consider also Guiding Principle 6:

An effective English language arts curriculum provides explicit skill instruction in reading and writing.

In some cases, explicit skill instruction is most effective when it precedes student need. Systematic phonics lessons, in particular decoding skills, should be taught to students before they try to use them in their subsequent reading. Systematic instruction is especially important for those students who have not developed phonemic awareness – the ability to pay attention to the component sounds of language. Effective instruction can take place in small groups, individually, or on a whole class basis. In other cases, explicit skill instruction is most effective when it responds to specific problems students reveal in their work. For example, a teacher should monitor students’ progress in using quotation marks to punctuate dialogue in their stories, and then provide direct instruction when needed.  (Emphasis added).

Then compare Massachusetts General Standard 7: Beginning Reading for PreK-2 to the Iowa Core Curriculum* Reading Essential Concepts and Skills at the primary level (K-2).


7.3 [PreK-K] Use letter-sound knowledge to identify unfamiliar words in print and gain meaning:

• know that there is a link between letters and sounds;

• recognize letter-sound matches by naming and identifying each letter of the alphabet;

• understand that written words are composed of letters that represent sounds;

• use letter-sound matches to decode simple words.

7.6  [1-2]  Recognize common irregularly spelled words by sight (have, said, where).

7.7  [1-2]  Use letter-sound knowledge to decode written English:

• decode accurately phonetically regular one-syllable and multi-syllable real words and nonsense words;

• read accurately many irregularly spelled words, special vowel spellings, and common word endings;

• apply knowledge of letter patterns to identify syllables;

• apply independently the most common letter-sound correspondences, including the sounds represented by single letters, consonant blends, consonant digraphs, and vowel digraphs and diphthongs;

• know and use more difficult word families (-ought) and known words to decode unknown words;

• read words with several syllables;

• read aloud with fluency and comprehension at grade level.

Iowa Core Curiculum:

Use multiple decoding strategies to read words in text.

  • Apply knowledge of letter/sound correspondence.
  • Recognize sight words.
  • Look for parts within words.
  • Skip the unknown word(s) and continue reading.
  • Reread sentences/paragraphs.
  • Look for graphic cues.
  • Use the context of phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and text.
  • Ask if the word(s) make sense.

Note that Florida and Massachusetts explicitly specify that students use phonics for reading.  Massachusetts appears to limit sight words to common irregularly spelled words while otherwise expecting that children will sound out phonetically regular words.  Compare this to the Iowa Core Curriculum that seems to be embracing a balanced literacy approach; note the suggested strategies of looking for graphic cues and using context.  Incidentally, guessing words from the pictures or the context, as these strategies appear to suggest, is not reading but that is a topic for another post.  It would be interesting to know how much systematic phonics instruction is actually happening in Florida and Massachusetts classrooms as compared to Iowa classrooms and whether that accounts for higher NAEP reading scores in Florida and Massachusetts.

School Reform

Matthew Ladner writes about Florida school reforms and Florida improvements in NAEP reading scores at Jay P. Greene’s Blog.  I have not had time to investigate Florida education policy further but Ladner has piqued my interest about what Florida might teach Iowa about school reform.  A taste:

I appeared on a conference panel recently, and a fellow panelist noted the difference between a problem and a condition. A problem, she said, was something you tried to fix. A condition was something you had given up on and just grown to accept.

Low academic achievement for low-income and minority children is a problem not a condition. Florida under Jeb Bush put in testing and accountability with real consequences, implemented parental choice, reformed reading instruction, curtailed social promotion, liberalized teacher certification, and put in merit pay.

The results speak for themselves.

Some other posts of interest are here and here.

*  I am using a download of the K-12 Literacy document.  The information can also be viewed online by choosing Reading for the K-2 grade span.