As math test denies NC teachers licenses, hundreds of classrooms remain unstaffed

Less than three weeks before school started, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had about 100 vacancies for elementary school teachers posted.

Some of those jobs are open because beginning teachers have given up on paying $94 a shot to take and retake the math test required to earn an elementary teaching license — a test that experts say focuses on algebra, statistics and other skills generally taught in middle or high school.

Krista Ricks, who teaches at an elementary school in south Charlotte, says she’s losing a colleague who earned a state bonus for her students’ success on state exams. That colleague, she said, was fired after her first two years because she couldn’t pass the math test given by Pearson, a private company that provides North Carolina’s licensing exams. Almost 2,400 North Carolina teachers have failed the math section since the state adopted that test in 2014, with almost half failing in the most recent year, according to a report presented last week.

“She is a phenomenal teacher ... (but) she refuses to pay Pearson more money to take the test again because she knows she’ll more than likely continue to fail,” Ricks wrote in an email to state Sen. Jeff Jackson, which she copied to the Observer. “I don’t blame her. If seasoned and veteran teachers were required to take this test I guarantee the majority would fail.”

Long-simmering questions about the best way to test teachers burst into public view last week, when the state Board of Education heard a report on high failure rates on the math exam. That has educators, policy makers and members of the public debating: Is the licensing exam weeding out teachers whose weak math skills could undermine their students? Or is it artificially blocking teachers who are great with young children? Does the flaw lie with the exam, the teachers or the universities who trained them?

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“We have quite a bit of work to do to try to resolve this matter,” said state Board of Education member Olivia Oxendine, an education professor at UNC Pembroke. “It has our schools and our colleges of education scratching their heads.”

“I think it should be a big concern for absolutely everyone,” said state Rep. Craig Horn, a Weddington Republican who chairs the House education committee. He said he learned about the exam controversy only last week from the Observer article, and has started researching the issue.

“The last thing I want to do is dumb down the test,” Horn said Tuesday. “I want to pull up teacher preparation.”

Pearson provides teacher license exams for 24 states, including others that have had controversy over low pass rates on math. But only one, Massachusetts, uses exactly the same math exam, company officials told the Observer Tuesday. And that state reported results similar to North Carolina’s, with 52.2 percent of first-time test takers passing in 2016-17. When repeat test-takers were factored in, the Massachusetts rate rose to 64.2 percent.

North Carolina’s pass rate on the math exam was 54.5 percent in 2016-17, including 987 who didn’t try again after failing.

Changes in the way North Carolina licenses its teachers came about after the state approved Common Core academic standards for students. Officials wanted to make sure teachers’ skills were adequate for the rigorous demands being placed on students, and that includes preparing children to master high-level math in middle and high school, Oxendine said.

Under the old system, teachers had to pass licensing exams before being hired. Pass rates on the math portion of the Praxis given by the nonprofit Educational Testing Service hovered around 85 percent, according to the state report.

Following the money

Starting in 2014-15, the state Board of Education shifted to Pearson exams for elementary and special education teachers. State officials say they chose those exams because Massachusetts was using them and because Pearson is a “reputable company.”

As of 2014, new hires had two years to pass the tests and earn a license. Taking the reading, math and general knowledge portions of the exam all at once costs $278. Retaking the math portion alone, which teachers and state officials agree has been the biggest stumbling block, costs $94. The fees are paid by teachers, not taxpayers.

Retaking the exams and paying for test-prep classes “are costing new teachers hundreds and thousands of dollars,” said Katie Steele, a special education teacher in Alexander County. Steele, who was featured in last week’s Observer article about the exams, had failed the math portion despite being named her school’s first-year teacher of the year. She had just retaken it and was waiting for results.

On Friday, she learned she had failed again — “by ONE point!!”

Pearson, a for-profit company, does see increased revenue when teachers take the exams more than once. But while teachers may pay other private companies, such as Kaplan, to help them prepare for the exams, Pearson does not offer preparation for a fee. In fact, the company offers free practice exams, study guides and tutorial videos on its website, while North Carolina offers free prep courses specifically tailored to the Pearson exams, state officials say.

North Carolina officials and educators were involved in the adoption of the Pearson exams and have monitored the results.

“Test scores required for passing are determined by the state and are informed by recommendations from North Carolina educators resulting from standard setting activities. Pearson does not place any artificial barriers in the way of candidate success,” said Pearson media relations director Scott Overland.

Too late for August?

Oxendine says it would be a mistake for North Carolina to reduce its testing standards just to boost pass rates. Drew Polly, an education professor at UNC Charlotte, agrees.

“It’s not the pass rate that’s the concern. It’s alignment of the concepts,” said Polly, who has been part of the state’s review of the best way to screen for teacher effectiveness.

Polly, who specializes in elementary school math for prospective teachers, said the younger grades tend to be focused on skills such as fractions, decimals, multiplication and division, while the licensing exam tests teachers on algebra, statistics and skills that students tackle in eighth grade or high school.

That doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable for college graduates to show they know high school math, Polly said. But he said he and other education experts reviewed the math test this spring and concluded the state needs a better way to flag the teachers who genuinely aren’t ready without pushing out good ones.

Most elementary teachers are responsible for all core subjects, such as math, reading, social studies and science, while secondary teachers specialize and take licensing exams tailored to their area of expertise.

State officials say they’ll collect more data and do more analysis. Pearson says they’re eager to work on that project.

The challenge, says Polly, is that “a decision will not happen any time soon, which is a concern with you think about school starting in a few weeks.”

It’s unclear how many teachers have been forced out because of the exam. The state Board of Education voted in July to give teachers an extra year to keep taking the test, but word of that decision and how to handle it was just starting to filter to school districts in August.

Wake County Public Schools, which employs about 10,000 teachers, has 25 who are still waiting to pass the math exam as of Friday, spokeswoman Lisa Luten said. She said Wake’s teacher vacancies are not unusually high this year.

CMS officials said they had no information available about how the Pearson exams are shaping the district’s struggle to staff elementary classrooms. This year the district launched a six-week summer program to train career-changers and recent graduates who didn’t major in education to take teaching jobs when school starts. The program is preparing them to take jobs as elementary teachers and middle school math teachers because those jobs have proven hardest to fill.

Ricks, the CMS teacher who lost a colleague to the math test, says it’s bad for students when established teachers are forced out and schools must scramble for summer hires.

“The reality is now instead of having a great teacher with a proven track record, our students will be presented with a last minute hire,” she wrote. “And let’s be honest, a last minute hire is rarely a good find.”


An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the number of elementary teacher vacancies in Wake County Schools. A spokeswoman said that while the district's website listed 125 such vacancies, that list was not up-to-date and Wake had only about 100 vacancies for teachers at all grade levels.
Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms