More than 2,000 NC teachers failed a math licensing exam. Now it may be dropped.

The math exam that has made it difficult for hundreds of new North Carolina teachers to get their license could be phased out as early as February, based on a recent vote by a panel of state education experts.

In August, the state Board of Education learned that almost 2,400 elementary and special education teachers have failed the math portion of the licensing exam. Critics say the test requires middle and high school math skills that teachers of young children may not use, while failing to gauge whether licensing candidates will be effective teachers.

Those critics got a boost from a report presented last week to the state’s Professional Educator Preparation and Standards Commission. That report looked at more than 1,100 beginning teachers who have taken licensing exams created by the for-profit Pearson publishing company. It found that teachers who passed the math test on the first try didn’t get significantly better results with their students than those who failed at least once.

Nor were higher scores on the math exam significantly linked to better performance evaluations, the study by Kevin Bastian of UNC-Chapel Hill and Kristina Patterson of Georgia Southern University found.

“It’s not an indicator of an effective teacher,” said Glenda Jones, an assistant superintendent in Cabarrus County Schools and a member of the standards commission. “It is a barrier to licensure and that trickles down to being vacancies in the classroom and a teacher shortage.”

Currently elementary and special education teachers must pass three exams, all created by Pearson, to earn a license: reading, math and a “multi-subject” test that include science and social studies. Bastian told the panel that the only significant correlation his study found was that scores on the reading test were linked to better student results in grades K-2 and better job evaluations.

The standards commission, which includes teachers, administrators and representatives of colleges of education, voted unanimously to keep the Pearson reading test and replace the Pearson math test with a Praxis math exam created by the nonprofit ETS. It also voted to eliminate the multi-subject test, which is not required by state law.

Under the current system, teachers pay $139 to take all three tests at one sitting. If they have to retake a test or choose to do them separately, the reading test costs $139 and the math and multi-subject tests each cost $94. Teachers have said the costs are compounded when they keep failing math and paying to take prep courses to help them pass.

The alternative, they told the Observer, is to leave the teaching profession, even if they’re gotten glowing reviews.

“We’ve got teachers who are taking that same Pearson (math exam) over and over and over and are not passing, and the cost’s coming out of their pockets at $35,000 a year for a beginning teacher,” Jones said.

“Right now I’ve got a kindergarten teacher who has spent $600 of her money on taking the test and test-prep programs,” said commission member Robin Hiatt, a teaching and learning coach in Johnson County Schools.

The commission’s recommendation will be shared with the state Board of Education in January, and that board could vote on new licensing requirements in February. If the commission’s plan is adopted, teachers will have the option of passing the Pearson or Praxis math test until July, when the Praxis will become the only math exam.

Defenders of the Pearson math test have said teachers of young children need to understand the concepts of higher math to prepare their students. It’s not unreasonable to ask college graduates to demonstrate proficiency on middle or high school math, they add.

“A state certainly has a role in ensuring that the people that come in to teach its children are prepared to do so,” Bastian said in presenting the report. “I think licensure exams are one way to go about that.”

Pearson spokesman Scott Overland said Tuesday that the company has been working with North Carolina officials to create valid licensure exams and offers free study materials.

“North Carolina teachers are deeply involved throughout the process of validating educator licensure assessments,” he said. “Test scores required for passing are determined by the State and are informed by recommendations from North Carolina educators resulting from standard setting activities.”

Read Next

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.