Each year, teacher candidates across the nation take licensing exams designed to check their mastery of pedagogy and of content knowledge. Though each state selects its own licensing tests, the Praxis Elementary Education: Multiple Subjects assessment, created by the Education Testing Service (ETS), is the most widely used elementary content exam. It’s required in eighteen states and optional in five others.

In a new report, the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) examines never-before published data from ETS to identify initial and final passing rates for this exam. Teaching candidates are required to separately pass each of the four content area subtests: reading/language arts, math, science, and social studies. Only 46 percent of candidates passed all four subjects on their first attempt, which the report authors flag as being very low. In comparison, initial passing rate for licensure exams in other professions with a reputation for difficult entry exams is much higher: 69 percent for lawyers, 85 percent for nurses, and 90 percent for doctors of internal medicine. The final pass rate for the Praxis exam is higher—72 percent—but that doesn’t take into account the time and cost of retakes.

A demographic breakdown of final pass rates also reveals significant gaps between candidates of color and their white peers. While 75 percent of white candidates go on to pass all four subjects, only 57 percent of Hispanic candidates and 38 percent of Black candidates do the same. There are similar gaps in passage rates for each of the subtests. Based on these results, and assuming similarly disparate pass rates for the other tests used by all states, NCTQ estimates that approximately 8,600 candidates of color each year likely do not qualify to teach based on low test performance. Given research that shows students benefit from having teachers of the same race, it should worry policymakers and advocates that so many candidates of color are failing licensure exams.

But why are so many candidates—more than half overall—struggling so mightily to pass their licensing tests on their first try? There are a variety of issues at play, but a lack of alignment between how candidates are prepared and what they need to know to pass licensing tests could be a significant factor. NCTQ claims that elementary teachers need to master at least eleven core topics in four content areas to be prepared to meet teaching requirements. But based on data collected from undergraduate elementary teacher preparation programs at 817 institutions that account for 71 percent of such programs in the nation, they find that each on average covers just three of those eleven topics.

Another part of the problem is that too few undergraduate teacher preparation programs identify candidates’ knowledge gaps early enough. Most require candidates to be formally admitted, typically before a candidate’s junior year of college. Screening candidates prior to admittance would allow universities to address gaps in candidate knowledge by requiring additional coursework. Unfortunately, only 4 percent of the 817 programs screen candidate knowledge in at least one area.

Most institutions also do very little to ensure that the general education courses taken by candidates are relevant to both the licensing test and the daily demands of being an elementary teacher. While the parameters of some programs are too narrow (i.e., a history course that only focuses on one decade in American history), others are too broad (such as a course that covers multiple scientific disciplines in one semester), and still others focus on pedagogy rather than content.

To make matters worse, data reporting practices are also suspect. NCTQ notes that many teacher preparation programs only publicly report passing rates for completers—candidates who have finished their coursework and passed the appropriate licensing exams. This gives the public a skewed view of how many test-takers pass on their first attempt, and explains why the rates reported by programs are so much higher than the data provided in this report.

The authors are careful to note that they can’t prove the correlation between coursework and pass rates. They also point out that strengthening college course requirements isn’t a silver bullet, and that the fault for candidates’ gaps in content knowledge lies with the “inequitable or uneven” K–12 education sector and not teacher preparation programs. Nevertheless, they are “confident that requiring meaningful exposure to relevant content” during teacher training will be a key element of diversifying and strengthening the teacher workforce moving forward.

The report closes by offering a series of recommendations to both teacher preparation programs and state policymakers. These include using admissions processes to identify candidates’ weaknesses in content knowledge, aligning content course requirements with what elementary teachers need to know, and holding preparation programs accountable for low pass rates rather than abandoning licensing tests all together.

SOURCE: Hannah Putman, Kate Walsh, “A Fair Chance: Simple steps to strengthen and diversify the teacher workforce,” National Council on Teacher Quality (February 2019).

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Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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