News: Quick Takes

Thousands of North Carolina teachers failed math section of licensing exam

More than 2,000 North Carolina elementary teachers have failed the math portion of their licensing exam since the state started using a new test in 2013. The test itself may be the problem.

Before the 2013-14 school year, North Carolina required all elementary teachers to pass Praxis 5015 to earn a license to teach in the state. The state has since adopted the Pearson Publishing Co.’s test, which includes subsets of mathematics and reading.

After the switch, pass rates plummeted for the math section of the test. With Praxis, the N.C. average pass rate from the 2011-12 school year to 2013-14 was 85 percent. For the 2014-15 school year, the pass rate dropped to 65 percent. The most recent pass rate is 54.5 percent.

In July, the State Board of Education allowed school districts to retain teachers who failed the test for another year, giving them time to retake it.

The problem isn’t limited to North Carolina. Florida and Indiana also saw more teachers flunk the test. ABC Action News reported in Florida that at least 1,040 teachers lost their jobs because they failed to pass the math section of the Florida Teacher Certification Exam. Indiana saw high failure rates for math, science, and reading. WTHR reported 18 percent of potential elementary science teachers passed the science section for the 2015-16 school year.

“Pearson supports the efforts of state education officials to have high-quality, valid educator licensure assessments. We have been working with departments in a number of states to implement exams that help them achieve their education goals,” Scott Overland, director of media relations at Pearson, said in an emailed statement. “Teachers are deeply involved throughout the process of validating educator licensure assessments.”

Thomas Tomberlin, director of district human resources at the Department of Public Instruction, gave a presentation on the issue to the State Board of Education on Wednesday, Aug. 1.

“Here in the 2018 school year we have a great number of teachers who have not passed this test and now are seeking relief through policy,” Tomberlin said.

DPI doesn’t know how many teachers failed one year but passed the next. Tomberlin said he can’t tell — by using existing data — how many teachers who haven’t passed the test would lose their licenses. New reporting requirements should make that information easier to get.

Tomberlin said the solution isn’t as simple as switching the test. DPI needs to collect more data to determine the relationship between teacher effectiveness and the licensure exam.

“This is not an easy question to answer,” Tomberlin said.

A subcommittee of the Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Committee is looking into an alternative to the Pearson exam. The subcommittee is composed of math experts and educators working toward new recommendations. Even if PEPSC comes back with a new test, Tomberlin said, there will always be teachers who fail. That doesn’t mean they are ineffective teachers.

“The question becomes are we going to have the will to expire the licenses for those teachers who began employment but two years later still can’t pass the licensure exam?” Tomberlin asked the board. “Or is there another alternative?”