Why Are The MTELs So Hard?


Why Are The MTELs So Hard?

The Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) is a series of computer-based tests used to evaluate communication and literacy skills. Meant to ensure that Massachusets educators can communicate adequately with their students, many teachers find the MTEL program surprisingly difficult. Since 1999, I have worked with a few thousand prospective educators who have struggled to pass one or more MTELs. One of the most common questions I have been asked is, “Why are the MTELs so hard?”

The MTELs are a wide-ranging group of exams, so there is no easy answer as to why they are challenging for so many people. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the “Big 5” MTELs: the Communication and Literacy Reading and Writing, the General Curriculum Multi-Subject and Math, and the Early Childhood. These are exams of which I have an intimate knowledge through decades of MTEL prep experience.

Here’s why my students have found these MTELs so difficult:

The MTELs Focus on Basic Skills.

That sounds like a good thing.  Basic skills, for the most part, should be easy.  But you need to know these basic skills beyond the superficial.

In Bloom’s Taxonomy terms, knowing them at the “Knowledge/Remember” level is not enough to help with these exams; they are not matching or fill-in-the-blank style tests, and the multiple-choice questions aren’t easy either (more on this below).  You need to be able to use concepts at the “Application/Apply” level.  In other words, simply knowing definitions isn’t enough.

Public schools aren’t spending time on the basic skills like they used to. I noticed a big change in my students’ knowledge base in the early 2000s. Students were much less likely to understand basic grammar and punctuation.

I was at a loss to explain this until I met a retired English teacher.  When I brought this up, he explained that sometime in the 1980s there was a major shift in how writing is taught.

When I was a student in the Chelsea Public Schools, we had to diagram sentences.  Parts of speech were drilled until they were branded onto our minds as if we were cattle.  My 7th grade English teacher made us recite a list of prepositions every day:  ”aboard, about, beneath, between, beyond…”

In the mid-80s, the powers-that-be of English education decided that it would be better to let kids write without so much structure and grammatical knowledge. Students were encouraged to get their ideas on paper without worrying about the usual conventions of structure and grammar.  This worked great for some students, but it left many without the ability to understand basic grammar and sentence structure or organize and structure their writing.

Students can’t identify subjects and verb pairs, direct/indirect objects, prepositional phrases, when to use who/whom, find the main idea, and so on. This is all vital for writing well and for understanding what you read.

The Communication and Literacy exams and all MTEL writing tasks—the open responses—are directly impacted.

ETI’s programs are built upon these basic skills.

The MTELs Cover A Vast Range Of Topics

The GC Multi-subject and Early Childhood exams are especially impacted by the broad range of topics their exams cover.  Most of those who take these particular exams are not big fans of science or history.  If they were, they’d probably be working on their PhDs or the high school-level subject MTELs.

The questions are fairly basic; someone who majored in bio or chem would find them elementary. However, the very wide range of topics means that you have to study dozens of topics about which you really don’t care.

The exams do not cover infinite topics, but how do you know exactly what to study?  Researching all the topics listed in the MTEL test information booklets leads to being stressed out and overwhelmed.

The sheer number of topics is stressful enough but knowing how deeply to understand each topic is panic inducing.  Any one of the science or history topics can have scores of related webpages; which page has what is needed?  How much do you really need to know?

A good test-prep program will narrow down the topics necessary to study, explain exactly what you need to know, and teach you the content in ways you can understand and retain.

Math Problems Are Disguised.

The math on the GC Math exam really isn’t that hard. If it were, I’d have to really study up to have developed my own program. The math is SAT-level (the mid-1990s version)—10th grade math, algebra and geometry along with the basic arithmetic, stats, and probability.

The problem is that the math is disguised.  The most common comment is class is usually “Really, that’s it?”  People who identify as “poor test-takers” or who have low confidence with standardized tests or math have great difficulty dissecting the questions to understand the math embedded in the problem.  These questions can be impossible for those who panic or doubt themselves.

This exam is very coachable.  You do not need a math teacher to prepare you.  You need a test-prep expert who can teach the math.

Building your test-taking “tool kit” and learning when to use each tool is critical for understanding these tricky questions and seeing them for the basic math problems they are.

Attractors, Attractors, Attractors

Attractors are the trick answer choices that the test makers use to confuse test-takers.  To an extent, employing this technique makes sense. If the correct answer was too obvious, the test wouldn’t be valid; the exam would be too easy to be able to determine test-takers’ ability.  Attractors confuse test-takers by shaping their thinking; they cause doubt and increase anxiety and second-guessing.

Unfortunately, low-confidence or “poor test-takers” are particularly susceptible to attractors.

Our educational system does not prepare students very well for standardized exams.  Even MCAS-prep programs do not really teach students how to take tests.  When I’ve co-taught with regular education teachers, they are always surprised when I teach test-taking skills; they have never been taught themselves.

People believe that good test takers are born, not made.  I don’t disagree; many people seem to be naturally good test-takers; they see the games inherent in the questions and are able to use logic to get answers right even if they don’t understand the content very well.  However, I disagree with the idea that good test-takers cannot be made.

Anyone can be taught to be a better test taker.

Anyone can be taught to “Avoid the Attractor,” ETI’s primary test-taking strategy and approach.

Anyone can be taught the correct way of using the process of elimination.

Anyone can be taught to use a logical process and exploit the inherent idiosyncrasies of Pearson-made exams to become a better test taker—and pass their MTELs. You just need to pick the right MTEL-prep program.

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