Hundreds of NC teachers are flunking math exams. It may not be their fault.

According to a report, almost 2,400 North Carolina elementary school teachers have failed the math portion of their licensing exams, which puts their careers in jeopardy.
According to a report, almost 2,400 North Carolina elementary school teachers have failed the math portion of their licensing exams, which puts their careers in jeopardy. News & Observer file photo

Almost 2,400 North Carolina elementary school teachers have failed the math portion of their licensing exams, which puts their careers in jeopardy, since the state hired Pearson publishing company to give the exam in 2013, according to a report presented to the state Board of Education Wednesday.

Failure rates have spiked as schools around the state struggle to find teachers for the youngest children. Education officials are now echoing what frustrated teachers have been saying: The problem may lie with the exams rather than the educators.

Teachers in Florida and Indiana have also seen mass failures when their states adopted Pearson testing, according to news reports from those states. Concern about the validity of the Pearson licensing exams is so pervasive that it was discussed at this year’s National Education Association conference, said North Carolina Association of Educators President Mark Jewell.

“I hope this doesn’t lead to a mass exodus of new teachers and exacerbate our shortages,” he said.

The Board of Education, which last month granted beginning teachers an extra year to pass, plans to review the Pearson exams to see if the tests are actually measuring skills needed to teach elementary students effectively, or whether they’re gauging math that’s generally taught in higher grades.

Jamie Duda, who spent the past year teaching language arts in a Charlotte-Mecklenburg elementary school, believes it’s the latter. Two years ago, after getting her degree from the Arizona-based University of Phoenix, she passed her Arizona licensing exams on the first try. In North Carolina, she passed the reading and general curriculum portions. But she failed math.

Duda says she has one child who just graduated from high school and one in ninth grade. The older child “took honors and AP math classes and could not help me on some of the practice questions,” Duda said, while the younger said he didn’t expect to learn some of the material until 11th grade.

“I am confused as to why I am being tested extremely above the math level of my degree,” said Duda, who says CMS didn’t hire her for 2018-19 because of the failing grade, even though she got “great evaluations” during her first two years of teaching.

Before 2014, new elementary teachers had to pass state exams, known as the Praxis, before they could start work. Those pass rates hovered around 85 percent or higher, according to a presentation given to the Board of Education Wednesday afternoon. After that they had to take reading, math and general curriculum exams, all provided by the for-profit publishing company Pearson, and pass them by the end of their second year of teaching.

Math has proven to be a stumbling block, said Tom Tomberlin, director of school research, data and reporting for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. The first year only 65 percent of teachers passed the new “foundations of math” exam, falling to 54.5 percent by 2016-17, the most recent year reported.

During the first three years of the Pearson exam, that represented 2,386 failures.

What the state doesn’t know is how many teachers failed one year but passed the next year. The reporting requirements have now been changed to make that possible to track.

Tomberlin said he didn’t make the decision, but he believes the state chose the Pearson exams because Massachusetts was using them.

“We take (the licensure tests) from Pearson because they’re established and they’re a reputable company,” Tomberlin told the board. “We haven’t done the work of seeing whether they’re meeting our needs in North Carolina.”

Rutherford County Schools Superintendent Janet Mason, who serves as a board adviser, said she understands the concerns. But she also noted that elementary teachers need to understand higher math well enough to teach the concepts that will build the foundation for success in higher grades.

Tomberlin agreed: “It’s too simplistic to say, ‘I’m a kindergarten teacher. I don’t need to know middle school math or high school math.’ ”

Pearson defended its exam in a statement to the Observer, saying the company has worked with the Department of Public Instruction to implement the exam.

“Test scores required for passing are determined by the State and are informed by recommendations from North Carolina educators resulting from standard setting activities,” Scott Overland, Pearson’s director of media relations, said in a statement. “Pearson does not place any artificial barriers in the way of candidate success and only considers test scores as criteria for passage.”

In July, the state board voted to give school districts the option of keeping teachers on for one more year, allowing them more time to pass the licensing exams. Board member Olivia Oxendine and state Teacher of the Year Lisa Godwin, who serves as an adviser to the board, both said they’re hearing about strong elementary teachers who can’t pass the math test.

Katie Steele, a special education teacher in Alexander County, said she graduated from Appalachian State with honors in 2015, has received “wonderful evaluations” and was named her county’s first-year teacher of the year. But she’s able to keep teaching next year only because of the extension.

“Many of us have taken each one 3-4 times each,” she wrote in an email. “There seems to be a magic number of about 4 times per test before Pearson ‘passes’ you.”

Steele said she attended a training session to help her pass the math exam: “I sat and cried in this training with TONS of other beginning teachers who can’t pass these tests.” She’s expecting her scores on her latest attempt at the end of this week. Between retesting and test-prep classes, “these test are costing new teachers hundreds and thousands of dollars,” she said.

DPI has not responded to the Observer’s request for the cost of the Pearson contract.

The state has named a committee of experts to review whether the Pearson test is aligned with the state’s K-8 curriculum and look at better alternatives. “A better test would be less about content knowledge and more about math knowledge to support strong teaching,” the presentation says.

The bigger question, according to the report, is whether success on licensure exams actually predicts effectiveness in the classroom. That’s going to be the focus of future study.


An earlier version of this story said Pearson provided only the math portion of North Carolina's teacher licensing exam. The company provides all three parts.

Read Next

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms