Elementary and secondary school teachers across the nation must take a licensing exam in relevant subject areas to verify they are qualified to teach in a given state. However, pass rates for exams are relatively low (especially for minority applicants), and a new report from the National Council on Teacher Quality finds that rather than changing the exams, states should look at changing education programs to better tailor them to the teaching requirements of a state:
Each year a significant number of aspiring elementary teachers, having successfully completed their formal preparation, are still unable to become licensed professionals. That’s because an alarming number of candidates fail their licensing tests, far surpassing the failure rate for other professions’ entry tests, bar exams, and boards. The fact that more candidates fail than pass on their first attempt, and a quarter are never able to earn a passing score, raises serious concerns—especially regarding the effect this failure has on diversity goals. While many factors going back to candidates’ earliest years of education may explain this phenomenon, higher education institutions are in the best position to alter this untenable outcome.
The report, though concerned about low passage rates for licensing exams, still defends licensing as a way to ensure teacher quality. The evidence on the effects of licensing requirements on teacher quality is mixed, but there is (as with any licensing requirement) clearly a negative effect on supply, particularly for minority teachers.
There are positive effects of minority teachers on the educational performance of all (but particularly minority) students. If there is indeed a positive effect on the quality of teachers due to licensing examinations (which, as stated above, is an open question), then we face a tradeoff with no obvious solution with respect to licensing per se.
But to resolve this problem, the report offers a solution in the form of better regulation of teaching curriculum, which often fail to cover the content required to pass a licensing exam:
After reading about the high failure rates on content licensure exams, an initial reaction may be to lower the scores needed to pass the test, or even to drop the test altogether. Licensure tests, while never perfect, play a critical role, verifying in a more uniform way than college GPAs or performance assessments that people who are licensed to teach elementary grades know the expected content. When candidates are not able to pass their licensing test, it suggests that their educational experiences up to that point have probably been inadequate. The solution is not to drop these tests, but to hold teacher preparation programs accountable for shoring up those gaps.
Though the ability of legislators to regulate private universities’ curricula may be limited, states can be more directly involved when setting the curricula for public institutions. To incentivize private institutions to revamp their curricula, states could also offer an exemption from a licensing exam from a “white list” of institutions that have satisfactory requirements for teachers with a high enough GPA.