Lowering the bar

Teacher licensure exams take up the ‘equity’ cause.

Minnesota schools are in crisis. Only 44.6 percent of our students can do grade-level math, and just under half can’t read at grade level. These results add to a long-term trend of mediocre academic performance and stagnant and declining test scores. We urgently need to strengthen the quality and effectiveness of classroom instruction.

Unfortunately, state policymakers are taking us in the opposite direction. In January 2023, Minnesota’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board (PELSB) dramatically and retroactively lowered passing scores on our state’s teacher licensure exams. The board, which is appointed by the governor, is informing many who failed the tests in past years that they will now qualify to teach in Minnesota classrooms.

PELSB’s move comes despite the fact that its 2020-21 testing “Technical Report” declares that the purpose of licensing exams is to ensure teacher candidates have the “knowledge and skills essential to an entry-level Minnesota educator.”

PELSB is taking this radical step in the name of “equity.” In Minnesota, as across the nation, black and Hispanic teacher candidates fail licensing tests at significantly higher rates than whites. In our state, the black and Hispanic pass rates are 62 and 75 percent, respectively, compared with 91 percent for whites, with unlimited attempts.

PELSB blames “systemic racism.” Its decision to drop passing scores to rock bottom, it says, is intended to ensure that 95 percent of candidates of all races and ethnicities pass teaching exams. This is part of its campaign to “upend oppressive systems” and revise what it calls “racist rules.”

PELSB’s policy change will be a disaster for Minnesota children. It is also an insult to members of minority groups who aspire to be teachers. The evidence is clear: What matters most in raising student academic achievement is the quality of a teacher, not skin color.

In a 2019 report titled “A Fair Chance: Simple Steps to Strengthen and Diversify the Teacher Workforce,” the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) acknowledged black and Hispanic candidates’ lower passing rates, on average, and laid out a path to increase their number in the classroom.

It warns, however, that policymakers must understand that abandoning the tests or making them easier to pass will not help either students or candidates. The NCTQ’s message, in essence, is this: When a thermometer reveals a patient has a fever, the way to solve the problem is not to throw away the thermometer.

Meaningful teacher licensure tests are of “critical” importance, says the NCTQ, because many teaching candidates — despite graduating from a college-level teacher preparation program — “lack the knowledge they need to enter the classroom.” Research “confirms a commonsense conclusion — students learn more when their teachers know more.”

Elementary teachers, for example, are responsible for building the foundation of background knowledge and vocabulary students need to succeed in middle and high school. Knowledgeable teachers enhance students’ reading comprehension, and are especially important for teaching math effectively. Poorly prepared teachers make more errors in instruction and often fail to give students appropriate grade-level assignments, according to the report.

The NCTQ believes teachers’ performance on licensure exams is unacceptably low across all demographic groups. To discover why, it analyzed data from the nation’s most widely used elementary teacher test — Praxis Elementary Education: Multiple Subjects — which it described as “roughly comparable” to state tests like those used in Minnesota.

Does racial bias explain minority candidates’ disproportionately high failure rates? The report describes the meticulous measures testing companies use to identify and eliminate biased test items, and cites research suggesting that a gap in basic skills, not race, is the determinative factor.

Instead, says the NCTQ, a primary problem is the “profound” disconnect between what aspiring teachers learn in many teacher preparation programs and what they actually need to know to achieve their goal. The NCTQ reached this conclusion after analyzing 817 college preparation programs for elementary teachers — 71 percent of the nation’s total — including some in our state. It found that only 21 of these programs adequately prepare teachers. None were in Minnesota.

Most teacher prep programs grant far too much latitude in the courses that will satisfy requirements for the major, according to the report. In fact, at many institutions, coursework on key subjects “is often irrelevant and sometimes absent altogether.”

Specifically, of the 11 core topics elementary teachers must master in language arts, math, science and social studies, the average preparation program covers only 3.4. Only one-quarter cover math adequately, and two-thirds don’t require a single aligned science course. When graduates prepare for licensure exams, they are frequently dismayed to discover how much important content they have missed and must scramble to find it elsewhere.

PELSB is responsible for approving and overseeing Minnesota teacher prep programs. Instead of invoking unsupported charges of racism to deflect blame for disproportionately low minority passing rates, the board should work to ensure that coursework at those programs is aligned to convey the knowledge teachers need to pass licensure exams and succeed in the classroom. Reform would generally require “tweaks,” not “seismic shifts,” and could bring “deep and lasting” benefits to the teaching profession, says the NCTQ.

The biggest beneficiaries, on average, would be minority teaching candidates. National tests consistently show that many students — especially minority students — reach grade 12 with major gaps in their knowledge and skills. At Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School in 2020, for example, black students’ graduation rate was 77 percent, but only 23 percent were proficient in reading and 10 percent in math, among those who took state tests in 2019.

Why is our state’s teaching workforce 96 percent white and 1.4 percent black? One reason is that students like these are being told their diploma certifies them as “college-and-career ready.” Some may go on to invest thousands of dollars in a teacher prep program, only to discover that their inadequate K-12 education poses a barrier to realizing their dream.

Not coincidentally, “teachers with gaps in their content knowledge are more likely to work in disadvantaged schools,” perpetuating “an endless cycle,” notes the NCTQ.

How is the Walz administration responding to PELSB’s decision to lower passing scores on teacher licensure exams? The governor has called on the Legislature to eliminate licensure tests — with a narrow exception for some elementary teachers — for anyone who graduates from a PELSB-approved Minnesota teacher prep program.

If Minnesotans want to get serious about improving K-12 education, this is one of the worst steps we could take.

A version of this article was originally published in the Star Tribune February 18.