State Board of Ed examines decline in teacher licensure exam pass rates

By: - December 6, 2019 5:51 am

Quality is this NC teacher’s superpower. (Photo by Clayton Henkel)

The percentage of teachers passing state licensure exams has fallen to 80%, leaving some members of the State Board of Education (SBE) to wonder if students are being shortchanged by ill-prepared teachers.

A report shared with SBE members this week showed the passing rate on state teacher exams fell from 96% in 2014 to 80.2% in 2018.

“I know there are other pathways to teaching, but if you spent four years at a university in an EPP [Education Preparation Program] and can’t pass the content test and the pedagogy test, then we have a problem and it’s showing up in our test scores, SBE member Amy White said during the board’s monthly meeting this week.

White and others questioned whether the falling scores reflect a decline in teacher quality. 

“This is probably most concerning to me because I know that teacher vacancies occur most in low-wealth districts with the lowest-performing schools,” White said. “Those are the hardest teaching seats to fill, so it gives me great pause that we would be putting educators in those seats who are not adequately equipped to help students grow and perform at the rate they should.”

SBE member J.B. Buxton said EPPs should give licensure exams before teachers complete the program. That way, any deficiency a prospective teacher has could be addressed before he or she goes to work, he said.

“But if we’re waiting until the third year [after teachers complete ed prep programs], then we’ve got a number of people who may go a while before they get to a point [as teachers] that we would be comfortable with them trying to grow my child,” Buxton said.

SBE member J.B. Buxton

Since 2016, teachers have been given up to three years after completing an ed prep program to pass licensure exams. They receive an initial license and can work as teachers while preparing to take the tests. Before, teachers were not allowed to enter the classroom to work without having passed state licensure exams.

“What is the motivation for us putting teachers in seats who are not qualified or equipped to teach adequately?” White asked.

Tom Tomberlin, director of educator recruitment and support, explained that school district leaders say teachers who have been through an ed prep program but didn’t pass licensure exams are better hires than long-term substitutes.

“I think that’s a fair and legitimate argument,” Tomberlin said. 

Despite the falling passing rate, Tomberlin said data show teachers prepared by the state’s EPP’s are the most “effective” and most “persistent” teachers.

“They stay in the profession longer and they perform higher than those prepared through other routes,” Tomberlin said.

North Carolina has 52 ed prep programs approved by the SBE. They include private and public universities and colleges as well as smaller programs created by school districts and nonprofits to feed the teacher pipeline.

In some states, the licensure passing rate is calculated using only students who have completed an ed prep program. In those states a program completer is defined as someone who has both finished the program and passed state licensure exams, which effectively gives the state a 100% passing rate.

In North Carolina, the licensure passing rate reflects the percentage of teachers who passed tests taken at the end of the fiscal year in which they completed an EPP.

“So, there are going to be more teachers who come out and do not pass the test but go ahead and are employed in a North Carolina school and therefore they’re going to show up on initial pass rates as failures,” Tomberlin said.

He contends that’s not the most accurate way to measure the state’s passing rate if teachers are going to be allowed up to three years to pass exams.

“If we’re going to give those teachers the opportunity to forego passing the test to two or three years after they complete their programs, then we should measure their pass rate as a cohort and look at their pass rate at the end of the three-year term in order to better understand were those teachers prepared to pass that test,” Tomberlin said.

Moving forward, Tomberlin said the state will measure passing rates of EPP teachers as cohorts.

Tomberlin acknowledged that “something’s happening” to send the passing rate plummeting but doesn’t believe it’s because the state’s EPPs have declined in quality.

The NCDPI report shows a nearly 11 percent decrease in the number of students completing EPPs from 2014 to 2018. In 2014, 5,113 students completed the program compared 4,446 in 2018.  

Lateral entry teaching candidates entering the profession decreased 4.8%  between 2014 and 2018. But the years in between were marked by impressive gains such as a 42.2% increase in 2017.

The report on EPPs comes a few months after a controversial visit by Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, who questioned the methodology North Carolina and other states used to calculate licensure passing rates during a presentation to the SBE.

As Policy Watch reported, Walsh told the board that states such as North Carolina don’t publish “actual” passing rates on licensure exams because of a “disproportionate poor performance” by minorities on the tests. 

Walsh also criticized North Carolina and other states for not disaggregating passing rates by ethnicity, which is set to change in this state moving forward. 

Tomberlin shared a chart with licensure exam pass rates from 2014-2018 disaggregated by race. Blacks, Latinx and Asian students lagged behind their white counterparts every year except 2015 when Asian students outperformed everyone.  

“There is a discrepancy, there is a disproportionality in the failure rate over our white, majority candidates,” Tomberlin said. “This will help us look at the 2019 data and how it’s going to come out in the disaggregation and at least we’ll have some idea whether this is a trend and whether we’re moving away from this.” 

Tomberlin said a thorough investigation into the causes of the disparity is needed before any recommendations are brought forward to correct the problem.

He said a new EPP dashboard now being developed will disaggregate passing rates and other such information by ethnicity and gender to help educators and others keep abreast of such concerns.

“These are the kinds of data you will be able to pull up as board members or member of the public to look at the quality of the candidates coming out of our different EPPs, with a really robust disaggregation system in place,” Tomberlin said.  

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.