But college admission test scores of those who become elementary teachers are, in fact, lower than those of other college graduates.
This raises questions about the quality of elementary-education curricula in colleges and about the caliber of students who choose that field of study, Drew Gitomer, one of the study's authors, said.
The study reviewed the scores of 600,000 individuals who sought teaching licenses between 1994 and 1997. It "suggests that folks can be successful in elementary-education programs without as strong an academic background as they might need in other majors," said Gitomer, who works in ETS's Teaching and Learning Division.
He said that states seeking to upgrade the quality of their teaching force should look for ways to "encourage a more academically able group" to enter elementary teaching.
"Even at young ages, children benefit a great deal by being in classrooms with folks who have a history of success in academic pursuits and an understanding of what it means to work through problems in a sustained kind of way," Gitomer said.
He suggested that states and teacher-training institutions should look at requiring prospective elementary-school teachers to major in a subject such as English or math - which most secondary teachers do - while taking courses in education.
The charge that teachers as a whole have the lowest SAT scores of any professionals comes from self-reported data given by high school students who say that they intend to major in education in college.
But this study looked at the college entrance exam scores of those people who actually pursued teaching credentials. About half of those who start out studying education change majors before graduation, the study says.
Those students who pass teacher licensing tests in use in most states - called Praxis and also made by ETS - have SAT scores "that are comparable to those of all college-bound seniors in math, and substantially higher than all college-bound seniors' verbal/English scores," the study says. But their scores are lower than those who actually graduate from college.
The researchers point out that doing well on these tests may not be a good indicator of teaching ability. However, they maintain that the scores are an indication of the prospective teacher's academic preparation.
And these findings come on top of other research showing that student standardized test scores are highly correlated with their teachers' literacy levels as measured by such tests.
But the SAT scores of teachers vary markedly depending on teaching specialty. Those who pass licensing tests to teach math, for example, score an average of 597 in the math SAT and 544 in verbal. Those specializing in English score 578 in verbal and 526 in math. Science teachers score 569 in math and 568 in verbal.
The national average for all college-bound high school seniors is 511 math and 505 verbal. For those who actually graduate college, scores are 542 math and 543 verbal.
However, those who pass elementary certification exams score 499 in math and 513 in verbal. Special education and physical education teachers score even lower.
Many states, including Pennsylvania, are seeking to upgrade standards for those pursuing teaching degrees.
Pennsylvania plans to phase in requirements that students maintain a 3.0 grade-point average in the first two years of college to be accepted into a major that will lead to a teaching degree. And it wants to require secondary-education teachers to major in the subject to be taught, rather than in education.
These data show, however, that such changes would have less effect than requiring elementary-education candidates to major in a subject. There was very little difference between the Praxis passing rates of students who major in math vs. those who major in math education, for example.
In Pennsylvania, at least, reducing the pool of available elementary-education teachers by raising standards would not have a catastrophic effect. Last year, more than 8,000 people received elementary teaching certificates, but public school districts in the state had only about 2,000 openings. And those 8,000 had to compete with previous graduates.
The state is also pursuing means for alternative certification allowing people without college training in education to become teachers.
According to the study, about 75 percent of those who have college degrees pass licensure tests without enrolling in teacher-education programs. That compares to a 90 percent pass rate for those in education schools.
Those who take the licensing exam without attending colleges of education have slightly higher SAT scores than the others.
Pennsylvania is also increasing the required passing score for most of its Praxis exams, which would reduce the share of those passing to 75 percent from 90 percent.
The report also indicates that boosting the required score on licensing exams will reduce the already small numbers of minorities who become teachers. And it will cut the teacher supply in general at a time when demand is surging.
An overwhelming proportion of those seeking to become teachers are white. If schools of education increase the SAT requirement for admission and the states raise required passing scores on the Praxis, the supply of minorities will decline even further, the study says.
"States face some difficult choices as they grapple with the issue of teacher shortages and with a teacher population that does not come close to reflecting the diversity of the students in the educational system," the researchers say.