Suppose one in four of a law school’s graduates could not pass the bar exam after multiple attempts? Applications would plummet, the school would tumble in the all-important U.S. News & World Report rankings and its American Bar Association accreditation potentially would be threatened.
In short, it would be catastrophic.
Yet at 18 of Minnesota’s 33 teacher preparation programs fewer than three-fourths of graduates passed all three of the basic skills tests required to secure a license to teach.
At eight of those programs, less than two-thirds of graduates passed during the first three years the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Examinations (MTLEs) were administered. At one program, the online for-profit Walden University, a third of graduates passed all three tests.
Only five programs have graduate-exam passage rates above 90 percent, with small programs administered by Carleton College, St. Olaf College and Teach for America scoring the highest.
MinnPost obtained a list of passage rates from September of 2010 to June of last year that was circulated at a meeting of the Minnesota Teacher Licensure Task Force. The data have not been reported publicly and stand in contrast to some of the concerns the panel has raised.
It’s reproduced here in an easier-to-digest form. Readers who would like the accompanying technical data — sample sizes and scale scores — can find it here. [PDF]
More than half of students who graduated during the three-year window — or 6,909 — attended prep programs with passage rates of 75 percent or less. In total, 12,725 teacher candidates took at least one of the exams and 9,699 passed all three.
The tests are designed to reflect whether a teacher candidate has the basic academic content-area skills of a college sophomore, the point at which most students select a field of concentration.
“Why are we even letting someone consider a career as a teacher if they aren’t able to pass those tests?” asked Sandi Jacobs, vice president and managing director of state policy for the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). “When you look at it, it’s not blowing anyone out of the water in terms of rigor.”
Report recommended eliminating the tests
In January, the task force issued a report [PDF] recommending the basic skills tests be eliminated. Instead, it suggested, the Board of Teaching should require the programs it approves to “include assurances” that their graduates are proficient.
The state Board of Teaching sets standards for teacher licensure and approves teacher preparation programs. When controversial issues have come before it in recent months its members, which include representatives from teacher colleges, have made it clear that they believe teacher preparation in Minnesota is more rigorous than in other states.
In recommending the elimination of the tests, which measure teacher candidates’ knowledge of basic math, reading and writing, the majority of task force members said that the exams are biased against minority candidates and an unfair hurdle for foreign-language-immersion teachers. Data showing lower passage rates by racial and ethnic group are posted on the task force’s web page.
The task force’s co-chairs did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
A bill currently moving through the state House of Representatives would allow the state Board of Teaching, made up of political appointees, to create alternative routes for teacher candidates to prove their skill level. Its author, Shoreview DFLer Barb Yarusso, was a task force member.
One possibility under the change would be to have graduates post a particular score on a college-admissions test such as the ACT or SAT. But because candidates could use an overall score, licenses could be issued to teachers who did poorly in one or more subject areas.
Other states' practices
The change is being considered at a time when most states are moving to increase expectations. Currently 41 states require new teachers to pass basic skills exams; 24 of them require passage before the would-be teacher is admitted to a teacher-preparation program.
A mounting body of research shows that the top-performing education systems internationally recruit future teachers from the top of their academic classes. Historically, few U.S. programs have had high admissions requirements.
In part, this was because women and minorities had very few opportunities to enter other professions. So as higher prestige occupations diversify, the candidate pool has shrunk.
At the same time, teacher-training programs are under pressure to recruit more students of color, who are more likely to leave high school with missing skills.
Background in Minnesota
Until 2010, Minnesota teacher candidates had to pass a set of tests known as the Praxis 1. From 2001 to 2009, 10 percent to 16 percent of graduates failed the high-school-level tests on their first attempt.
Recognizing this as a low bar, in 2010 the Board of Teaching contracted with Pearson to develop the MTLEs. Minnesota teachers and teacher-prep faculty were heavily involved in the effort. Among the quality checks they performed were reviews of the test questions for cultural bias.
In 2012, a bill requiring passage of the new tests sailed through the Legislature. In 2013, with passage rates low, lawmakers voted to suspend the requirement pending the work of a task force they created.
In response to the task force’s concerns about bias, Pearson volunteered to review the tests again and to make changes free of cost. According to a report issued by the panel’s four dissenting members, the group did not discuss Pearson’s offer.
“The task force’s recommendation to eliminate the basic skills exams is an over-reaction, and is out of step with efforts by other states and organizations to raise expectations for educators,” the report noted. “Having a nationally recognized, third-party exam of new teacher competency in the basic skills is important — not just as a safeguard for students, but as part of an overall strategy to elevate the teaching profession.”
Indeed Minnesota’s teacher-prep programs are under pressure from other quarters to begin admitting students more selectively and to take steps to remediate gaps in their academic skills.
New, tighter standards for teacher preparation
In addition to a highly critical review published last year by the National Council on Teacher Quality, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) is phasing in new, tighter standards for teacher-prep programs. The new criteria are part of a series of changes recommended by the National Research Council in response to a request from Congress.
Starting in 2016-2017, accredited programs will need to admit cohorts of students who score in the top 50 percent on college and graduate-school admissions tests or other assessments. In 2018-2019, the window narrows to the top 40 percent and in 2020 to the top 33 percent.
Admission by cohorts is an important detail, said James Cibulka, president of NCATE. “They are standards for the cohort, not for every individual,” he said. “So there is room for candidates who do not fit the profile.”
Programs may need to provide remediation to some students, he added. And elevating teaching as a profession will help to attract minority students who would otherwise go into a high stature field.
“That’s certainly what the alternative preparation providers have found, like Teach for America,” said Cibulka. “By and large they have done very well with diversity.”
'We're not doing well with what we do now'
Plus, it’s not as if the lower-bar status quo is effecting change. “We’re not doing well with what we do now,” he said. “We’re falling behind with the diversity of the P-12 teacher corps.”
“Right now, the conversation around the country is about raising the bar for admissions,” agreed NCTQ’s Jacobs. “How do we do that and generate a more diverse candidate pool?”
The University of Minnesota-Twin Cities has worked intentionally to recruit and support teacher candidates of color. “This is a very important goal for us,” said Deborah Dillon, associate dean for graduate, professional and international programs. “One strategy that we are using is we are creating scholarships for our candidates of color because often it’s a money issue.”
One of the dissenting task force members, Jim Bartholomew, noted that the state’s racial and socioeconomic achievement gap fuels the problem. Sending teachers who can’t pass a beginning college test back into classrooms won’t stop that cycle.
And what of the college graduates — several hundred during the MTLE’s first three years — who never pass the test? Before last year’s vote, legislators heard emotional testimony from teacher candidates who could not pass.
Bartholomew and another of the task force’s dissenters, Princeton Repubican Rep. Sondra Erickson, say those students deserve the chance to pick another course of study early on.
Erickson is concerned about the diversity of the teacher corps, but the passage rates by institution give her concern for all teacher candidates. If a student spends four or more years and thousands of tuition dollars in pursuit of a credential, what does it say that they can’t pass?
In the past, Bartholomew favored an unsuccessful effort to make the high-school-level Praxis 1 an entrance exam.
“Teacher candidates said, ‘This would be great because I went through four years and took the test and couldn’t pass it,’” he recalled. “If nothing else, the institution and the students would know where they stand up front.”