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Would-be teachers of color pass Pennsylvania licensing exams at lower-than-average rates

A new national report shows teacher prep programs produce uneven results.

A teacher sits at a table with a kindergarten boy who is looking at a paper using a magnifying glass.
While 62% of Pennsylvania’s elementary teacher candidates pass the state licensing test on the first try, teacher candidates of color at all but a few of the state’s teacher preparation programs have lower pass rates. 
Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

While 62% of Pennsylvania’s elementary teacher candidates pass the state licensing test on the first try, teacher candidates of color at all but a few of the state’s teacher preparation programs have lower pass rates.

At some schools, two of three prospective teachers of color fail the licensing test the first time around — setting them up for pricey and time-consuming retakes.

The data from a recent 38-state report on licensing exam pass rates comes as some state leaders and advocates push to increase teacher diversity in Pennsylvania. These efforts include a proposal to bulk up support for students of color in the teacher pipeline and boost data transparency. But the report, from the National Council on Teacher Quality, also points to formidable challenges, ranging from wide variation between teacher prep program results to uncertainty about how many teacher candidates walk away from the profession after failing the exam.

Only 6% of Pennsylvania teachers are people of color, compared to about 35% of students — one of the nation’s largest “teacher-student diversity gaps,” according to the Pennsylvania Educator Diversity Consortium.

Mimi Woldeyohannes, director of strategic partnerships at the Center for Black Educator Development, said it’s important to shift the narrative from blaming teacher candidates for licensing exam failures.

“It’s actually the system that has failed them through and through, whether it was from the K through 12 [system] or their teacher prep programs,” she said. “That’s something that we need to be honest about and talk about how we can rectify that.”

The Council’s report, which includes licensing exam pass rates from 2015 to 2018, argues that such exam results matter to student outcomes. But David Lapp, director of policy research at the education research group Research For Action, said he worries that people may conflate a teacher prep program’s quality with its licensure pass rate.

“These kinds of measures are more reflective of the selectivity of a program rather than the quality of their instruction,” he said.

The report’s authors acknowledge that more selective schools generally produce higher pass rates on the exams but show through detailed graphics that some less selective programs have first-time pass rates higher than the state average. In Pennsylvania, those include Clarion University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, among others.

Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development and a former teacher, said he appreciates the report for highlighting teacher prep programs that are beating the odds by some measures.

“I walked away curious,” he said. “What are the levers they’re using to push ahead of the pack?”

In addition to showing pass rates by school selectivity, the Council’s report highlights colleges where teacher candidates of color pass the licensing test on the first try at higher rates than the state average. Among those schools are the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, and the Community College of Allegheny County.

The report also cites programs with higher-than-average percentages of low-income college students who received a federal Pell Grant and higher first-time pass rates than the state average. Those schools include Clarks Summit University, University of Valley Forge, and Thiel College.

“There are outliers that we can learn from. I hope this drives peoples’ curiosity and commitment to outcomes,” said El-Mekki. “If that is how this is used, it can be a true game-changer.”

El-Mekki said the report also made him wonder what the state’s two historically Black colleges and universities — Cheyney University and Lincoln University — could do “radically differently.” At Cheyney, only 31% of first-time test-takers passed the licensure test — the lowest rate in the state. At Lincoln, the rate was 38%.

Pennsylvania is among 30 states categorized in the Council report as having “weaker testing systems” — in other words, inconsistent or lower expectations for test-takers. That’s partly because its elementary licensure test doesn’t include separate subtests for each core subject.

In addition, the state doesn’t hold all test-takers to the same passing score. The required score depends on their college grade point average. For example, a candidate with a 4.0 GPA could get an elementary teaching license with a 167 on the math, science, and health subtest, while a candidate with a 2.9 GPA would need a score of 219. The spread is the same for the language arts and social studies subtest and even bigger for the child development subtest.

Kendall Alexander, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said via email that the state’s considerations of a teacher candidate’s academic performance in addition to their licensing exam score, “is in step with not relying solely on high-stakes testing results as a single factor in determining eligibility.”

Generally, teacher candidates in states with weaker testing systems pass licensure exams more easily than in states with stronger testing systems. The council found that first-time pass rates were 76% in “weaker” states, compared to 45% in “stronger” states. Best-attempt pass rates — the share of candidates who passed after any number of tries — were 89% in “weaker states” and 79% in “stronger states.”

Unlike some “weaker system” states, Pennsylvania required all elementary teachers to pass the licensing test, had lower first-time pass rates — 62% — and lower best-attempt pass rates — 79% — than other states with weaker systems.

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