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Utah’s test to certify teachers know the science of reading is ‘stronger’ than most

A children's sharing library in the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Nov. 7, 2023.
Saige Miller
A children's sharing library in the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Nov. 7, 2023.

Utah is getting high marks for which reading licensure tests it uses. This test is required to get a license to teach early childhood, elementary and special education.

A new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality criticizes many states’ tests for not effectively measuring how well educators know the best practices for reading instruction.

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia were rated as having a “weak” test, the report said Utah was one of the states using a “strong” test.

The National Council on Teacher Quality is a nonprofit research and policy group based in Washington, D.C. that advocates for “greater transparency and higher standards among the institutions that exert influence and authority over teachers,” according to its website. The council analyzed the 25 elementary reading licensure tests that states use and rated them as weak, acceptable or strong based on how well they addressed five areas of effective reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. They also looked at whether the test included concepts contrary to reading research.

A test was rated as “strong” if it closely aligned with the five components, said council president Heather Peske. Only six of the 25 tests analyzed achieved that rating. One of them was the Foundations of Reading Test, which is required for Utah’s elementary, early childhood and special education teachers.

If a teacher passes a “strong” test, Peske said, “it’s a good signal that they have the knowledge and skills of the science of reading … and they’re ready to go into the classroom with the knowledge and skills to be effective with students.”

Peske’s group is concerned with how many states are using “weak” tests because she said those tests do not provide helpful information “about the extent to which these aspiring teachers have the knowledge and skills to teach reading.”

The Foundations of Reading Test is a relatively new requirement for Utah, beginning only a couple of years ago. Jennifer Throndsen, director of teaching and learning for the Utah State Board of Education, said in an email that the state previously required a test called Praxis Elementary Education: Content Knowledge, which the council rated as a “weak” test. Throndsen said the state stopped using it because it was not aligned with the science of reading.

Lori Anderson is the early literacy licensing specialist for the state board of education and has taken the Foundations of Reading Test herself. Compared to other reading endorsement tests, Anderson said the Foundations of Reading one is more in-depth.

Anderson said having a test that is strongly aligned with the science of reading provides helpful data.

“We really want to make sure that this assessment is holding the universities accountable for what they’re teaching. But also we’re hoping to inspire them to look at their practices and make sure it’s aligned to the science of reading,” Anderson said.

In 2022, the Utah Legislature passed a law requiring universities to teach the science of reading and prepare teacher candidates to pass this test.

Currently, the state’s teachers are being trained in the science of reading, and Anderson said testing makes sure teachers are properly trained before they enter the classroom.

If the state can do that, Anderson thinks “we won't lose as many teachers. That's my goal.”

Peske said licensure tests are just one component of making sure educators are prepared to teach reading.

“They're certainly not a panacea for all of our literacy problems in this nation. And so teachers need to be well prepared with knowledge and skills. They also need opportunities to practice teaching before they get into classrooms. They need opportunities to teach multilingual learners. They need opportunities to learn how to teach students who are struggling to learn to read,” Peske said.

Martha is KUER’s education reporter.
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