School & District Management

Report Probes the ‘Diversity Gap’ on Teacher Tests

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 23, 2011 3 min read
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Minority teachers tend to take licensing exams later in their academic or professional careers than their white peers, findings that could partly explain their lower scores on the tests and lower passing rates, according to a report released this morning by the Educational Testing Service and the National Education Association.

The study suggests candidates who take the tests earlier in their career, regardless of race, tend to do better on it, and that efforts to improve the knowledge and skills of minority teacher candidates therefore need to begin early.

The report is a product of the two organizations’ attempts to analyze why the teaching profession seems to have a hard time attracting minority candidates. Everyone from the teachers’ unions to U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan have acknowledged that the paucity of minority-race teachers is a problem, especially as the country grows more diverse every year. In addition, some research points to achievement gains when students are taught by teachers of the same race.

According to the report, about 41 percent of the public school student population belong to ethnic or racial minorities, but minorities make up only about 16 percent of the teaching force.

For the analysis, the report drew on demographic information supplied by some 300,000 test-takers who took ETS’ Praxis I (basic skills) or II (content and pedagogy) test between 2005 and 2009. (The race and ethnic data are self-reported, and as a colleague reminded me this morning, the categories in the report, like “Hispanic” and “White,” are in real life not mutually exclusive. Just something to keep in mind.)

It found that mean scores and passing rates on the Praxis I and 12 different Praxis II tests are lower for African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native-American test takers than for white candidates. The gap is especially large between white and African-American candidates.

Of particular interest, non-white candidates tended to do somewhat better on the essay questions than on the multiple-choice ones on the Praxis I. But on the content tests, they had a harder time with the essay questions. The report also found that higher GPAs correlated to higher passing scores.

In sum, the report said that faculty should start early on to try to remedy deficiencies in minority teachers’ skills and knowledge.

The report also includes the results from several one-day visits to teacher preparation programs that serve a large proportion of minority teacher candidates. The most consistent finding from interviews with faculty, the report notes, was that candidates struggled in the programs because they had not mastered skills in their P-12 education.

All that said, it’s worth asking just how great a teacher quality measure these tests are in general. A few other researchers have found that, while there appears to be some signal of teacher effectiveness in these tests, they’re not a terribly precise indicator of “effectiveness” as defined by value-added performance in the classroom. (All the usual caveats about value-added, test scores, etc., apply here.) That is, some teachers who do well on licensing tests seem mediocre on value-added measures, while others who seem to be really effective could get screened out based on where the state set the test cut-score.

The Obama administration has hoped to attract more minorities through its recruiting portal, and it’s also looking at the teacher-training aspect. In its FY 2012 budget request, the administration proposed funding a program for teacher training at minority-serving institutions, the Hawkins Centers of Excellence, at $40 million.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.