Qualification Exams: Skills Opportunities and Challenges for Teachers and Students Alike


Standardized testing is such an ingrained part of life in public and private schools, all the way through graduate school and beyond, that we’ve begun to take for granted the profound impact that they have on our personal and professional lives. Meanwhile, the scope of these tests has been widening, and the consequences for passing or failing can be far-reaching and life-altering. Prospective students understand this dilemma all too well; just past the midway point of their high school careers, students around the country must study for a day long process of examinations and essays, the scores of which will determine their future trajectory through life in major ways, affecting college admissions and thereby future job prospects and salaries. But there is usually only a day or two given to the testing itself; students must still struggle to stay on top of an already demanding educational curriculum, and some sections of the test will likely focus on material they haven’t even covered yet.

The disconnect between a student’s real life situation and the expectations of standardized testing are starting to become a subject of hotly contested debate in areas where the standards are changing. And the testing doesn’t stop after high school; for many college majors there are required professional certification exams in order to fully qualify to work in any given field. Depending on the field or specialization, the level of certification can be genuinely mind-boggling. Physicians studying sleep medicine, for instance, have a 12 to 15 year educational term before they even have a chance to become board certified in that one specific area of expertise, usually amassing a wide array of general and specialized knowledge in a variety of different medical fields along the way. 

The path to success on a certification exam can be fraught with difficulty and confusion as well. There are myriad groups offering many different kinds of assistance with preparation for these exams, and prospective test takers have few ways to evaluate their quality for jumping in. A prospective fitness trainer studying for the NASM test will be presented with dozens of outlets offering study materials. Some are more trustworthy than others, and materials can go out of date quickly as the test makers change the nature of the examination at the behest of the groups that regulate certification in any given field.

The woes of standardized testing seem to only intensify after students leave high school or college and enter the professional world. Common sense seems to dictate that professionals in training should be evaluated mostly by their mentors and teachers, class grades, and the quality of their coursework, project work, and dissertations, if applicable. But certification exams can play an inordinately large role. Teachers are among the professionals most affected by certification requirements that can change drastically, with consequences even for teachers that have already been working for years.

The issue of certification and qualification exams for teachers is one that certainly seems to lack a consensus. Some claim that the tests are too easy, resulting in a low quality of teachers across the board. These detractors point out that most people have fond memories of only a handful of inspiring teachers across their educational career, meaning that there is a lot of dead weight likely hanging around as a result of lax testing standards, but this view ignores the reality of a drastic shortage of teachers of all levels of experience and talent, while most teachers currently working are woefully underpaid and overworked. Nor is inspiration necessarily a benchmark for educational success; no one feels inspired when their doctor explains to them what’s wrong with their heart, but they still come away in the best scenario with a fundamentally better understanding of their medical condition than they had going in.

The problem for teachers and certification exams is that changes to requirements can force teachers to re-certify themselves and undergo testing again, resulting in a potential loss of employment if they fail to meet the new requirements. This complaint is at the heart of a lawsuit against Pearson on behalf of teachers in Florida. The teachers claim that the test itself is unfair, while the failure rate is exorbitantly high (earning money for Pearson as teaching students have to pay to retake the exam) and the grading process unnecessarily opaque.

In some areas, failure rates are startlingly high. Failure rates on the elementary level teacher exam are higher than 50%, and most teachers complain that they are tested on content above their level (and the level of their students), while their classes mostly prepared them to understand different teaching methodologies and classroom dynamics. This disconnect results in potentially high-quality teachers being kept out of the system entirely in some cases.

This disconnect between true ability and what is measured on a certification exam results in losses for everyone involved in the educational system, and increased scrutiny may result in some changes in the future.

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