Teaching Profession

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

By Madeline Will — March 05, 2019 4 min read

More than half of aspiring elementary teachers fail the most common licensing exam the first time they take it, according to a new study.

And passing rates on the Praxis have some serious implications for the diversity of the teaching profession. Only 38 percent of black candidates and 57 percent of Hispanic candidates ever pass the exam, compared with 75 percent of white candidates, says the analysis released last week by the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based think tank that advocates 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 passing rate is the multipart exam for certified public accountants.

Out of the four Praxis sections—reading/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies—science and social studies had the lowest passing rates. NCTQ studied results from a three-year window: Ultimately, over a quarter of test-takers didn’t pass.

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

The organization estimates that each year about 8,600 candidates of color are unable to enter the classroom because of the licensing-test barrier. The teaching profession is about 80 percent white, while the majority of the student population in public schools is nonwhite.

The Preparation Problem

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

The issue, she said, lies in preparation. Candidates take the exam when they’re college seniors, and they often take general content courses in the first two years of college—if they take them at all. Walsh recommends teacher-preparation 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 the District of Columbia. The data were initially collected between 2014 and 2016 as part of the NCTQ’s teacher-prep review—which has been criticized by many institutions of higher education for its methodology. The review heavily relies on documents, such as course catalogs and syllabi. The group found that:

• 3 out of 4 programs do not cover the necessary mathematics content;

• 2 out of 3 programs don’t require a single course aligned with any of the science topics from elementary curricula—biology, chemistry, physics, and earth science;

• One-third of programs don’t require relevant history or geography courses; and

• 10 percent of programs don’t require aligned coursework in English/language arts.

That disconnect between coursework and what’s on the licensing test could be driving the high failure rates, NCTQ says.

“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.”

Supporting Students of Color

A representative from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education could not be reached for comment as of press time, but the association recently released a brief urging institutions to better support students of color. The group has clashed with NCTQ in the past.

Emery Petchauer, an associate professor of English and teacher education at Michigan State University, said students of color are more likely to have received poor preparation in their K-12 schooling. Many students of color are also 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 on the Praxis, he said.

Petchauer, who has also written a book about teacher-licensure exams, said while it’s important to align teacher-prep coursework to what elementary teachers need to know, he worries some of NCTQ’s recommendations would lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. For example, ethnic studies aren’t on the Praxis exam—but Petchauer said prospective teachers should study that field.

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 points to research suggesting 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 academic 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 passing 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 succeed.

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, she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2019 edition of Education Week as Most Elementary Teachers Fail Licensing Test on First Try

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