School & District Management

You’re More Likely to Pass the Bar Than an Elementary Teacher Licensing Exam

By Madeline Will — February 26, 2019 7 min read
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More than half of aspiring elementary teachers fail the most common licensing exam the first time—and that number has even more serious implications for the diversity of the teaching profession.

Only 38 percent of black candidates and 57 percent of Hispanic candidates ever pass the most common teacher licensing test, compared to 75 percent of white candidates, according to a new analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based think tank that advocates for more rigorous teacher preparation.

The analysis uses never-before-released data from the Educational Testing Service, which administers the Praxis elementary education content test. That test is required by 18 states and is optional in five others, making it the most widely used elementary content test on the market, according to NCTQ.

Just 46 percent of teacher candidates pass the test on their first attempt—that’s lower than the first-time pass rates for doctors, nuclear engineers, and lawyers on their licensing exams. In fact, the only lower initial pass rate is the multi-part exam for certified public accountants.

Out of the four subtests on the Praxis—reading/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies—science and social studies had the lowest pass rates. NCTQ studied results from a three-year window, and found that ultimately, over a quarter of test-takers don’t pass.

“Why is teaching the only profession where we tolerate such high rates of failure?” asked Kate Walsh, the president of NCTQ and an author of the report.

NCTQ estimates that about 8,600 candidates of color each year are unable to enter the classroom because of the licensing test barrier. The teaching profession is about 80 percent white—according to federal data, just about 7 percent of teachers are black and 9 percent are Hispanic—while the majority of the student population is nonwhite.

The NCTQ analysis found that the Praxis outcomes are roughly comparably with those of other teacher licensing tests used in other states. For example, Florida has its own state licensing exam—and high numbers of aspiring elementary teachers fail it. According to reports by ABC Action News, school districts have had to terminate more than 1,000 teachers who couldn’t pass a portion of the exam.

States determine what content should go on the licensing tests, based on elementary curricula. Walsh said the core tenets of elementary curriculum—basic chemistry, basic physics (like pulleys and levers), U.S. history, world history, children’s literature, et cetera—are a “reasonable representation of what ought to be happening” in an elementary classroom.

The issue, she said, lies in preparation. Candidates take the licensing exam when they’re a senior in college, and they often take general content courses in the first two years of college—if they take them at all. Walsh recommends that teacher-prep programs give students a diagnostic test earlier in their college years to see which content area they struggle in.

NCTQ also studied data from undergraduate elementary teacher-prep programs at 817 institutions, in all 50 states and D.C. The data was initially collected between 2014 and 2016 as part of the NCTQ’s teacher prep review—which has been criticized by some institutions of higher education for its methodology. The review heavily relies on documents, such as course catalogs and syllabi. NCTQ found:

  • 3 out of 4 programs do not cover the breadth of mathematics content necessary for elementary teachers to know.
  • 2 out of 3 programs don’t require a single course aligned with any of the science topics found on licensing tests—biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science. (Education Week has reported before that many elementary teachers don’t feel confident to teach science, even though research shows that students who are engaged in STEM early on are more likely to pursue the field as adults.)
  • One-third of programs don’t require any history or geography courses that are aligned with the needs of elementary teachers.
  • 10 percent of programs don’t require any aligned coursework in English/language arts.

This disconnect between what teachers should know and how they are prepared could be driving the high failure rates on Praxis, according to the report.

“If you were prepared with the coursework that aligns with the topics, you’d do fine on this test,” Walsh said. “If you haven’t taken a chemistry class since your freshman year of high school, you’re not going to do so fine on this test.”

If teacher-prep programs better align their coursework to what elementary teachers need to know, that will help all students, including those of color, do better on Praxis, she said.

Still, Emery Petchauer, an associate professor of English and teacher education at Michigan State University, said institutions need to do a better job of actively supporting their teachers of color, who are more likely to have received poor preparation in their K-12 schooling. Many students of color are acutely aware of the stereotype that African Americans don’t do well on standardized tests, which creates test anxiety and can lead to poor performance, he said.

Petchauer, who has also written a book about teacher licensure exams, said that while it’s important to align teacher-prep coursework to what elementary teachers need to know, he doesn’t want to see a narrow curriculum. For example, ethnic studies aren’t on the Praxis exam—but Petchauer said that is something that prospective teachers should study.

He also noted “the really murky evidence that a score on a paper-pencil licensure exam has a direct relationship to teaching effectiveness.”

The NCTQ report pointed to research that suggests that teachers who have a higher passing score on licensing exams tend to see more student achievement gains in the classroom, especially for mathematics. But Petchauer emphasized the benefits for students of color who have a teacher of the same race, too.

The NCTQ report also recommends that state policymakers publish first-time and overall licensing test pass rates for all teacher candidates who are enrolled in a teacher-prep program. That would give prospective candidates the information needed to choose a program where they can be successful.

But now, these data are “completely hidden from public view,” Walsh said. Even teacher-prep programs don’t always know what percentage of their graduates are passing the licensing test.

“We’re scandalized at the lack of transparency for these data,” she said.

Sample Questions

Curious about what questions are on the Praxis elementary exam? Here are a few sample questions, as written in a Praxis study guide by ETS:

1. Which of the following is true of qualitative measures of text complexity?

A. They describe statistical measurements of a text.

B. They rely on computer algorithms to describe text.

C. They involve attributes that can be measured only by human readers.

D. They account for the different motivational levels readers bring to texts.

“The correct answer is C. The qualitative attributes are subjective and can only be evalauted by a human reader (i.e. “predictability of text”). A and B are incorrect because they refer to quantitative attributes of text complexity, while D focuses on matching the reader to text and task.”

2. The only prime factors of a certain number are 2, 3, and 7. Which of the following could be the number?

A. 18 X 28

B. 20 X 21

C. 22 X 63

D. 24 X 35

“The correct answer is A. The question requires an understanding of how to find factors and multiples of numbers. The prime factorization of 18 is 2 X 32 and the prime factorization of 28 is 22 X 7. So the prime factorization of 18 X 28 is 23 X 32 X 7.”

3. Since the end of the United States Civil War in 1865, all of the following have been successful efforts of groups seeking civil rights for African Americans EXCEPT

A. passage of affirmative action legislation

B. desegregation of public educational facilities

C. creation of a major national political party

D. establishing antilynching campaigns

“The correct answer is C. Both the Republican and Democratic political parties were established prior to the Civil War and groups that have tried to create a third major political party have not been successful.”

4. If a feather and two rocks of different weights were dropped simultaneously from a height of 5 meters in a vacuum, which of the following would be true?

A. Both rocks would hit the ground at the same time, but before the feather.

B. The heavier rock would hit the ground first.

C. The lighter rock would hit the ground first.

D. The feather and the two rocks would all hit the ground at the same time.

“The correct answer is D. In a vacuum, the only external force acting on each of the objects would be the gravitational force of Earth. The gravitational force is equal to M X g, where M is the object’s mass and g is the constant acceleration of gravity (9.8 meters per second squared). According to Newton’s second law, the acceleration, a, of an object times its mass is equal to the external force acting on it. For this situation, Newton’s second law gives M x a = M x g, or a = g. Thus, in a vacuum, all objects fall freely with the same constant acceleration g regardless of their mass.”

Image via Getty, chart via NCTQ

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