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Report calls attention to low teacher certification exam pass rates

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Half or more of elementary education graduates from eight Alabama public universities failed their first attempt at a national certification exam, a new state report says.

Only six of 14 public universities have a first-time Praxis elementary certification pass rate above 50%, the Alabama Commission on the Evaluation of Services (ACES) report said this week.

“It’s terribly disappointing to see these students pay good money, but then be unable within the first chance to pass this entry test to become a certified teacher,” Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, told Alabama Daily News on Thursday. 

The commission was created in 2019 to assess the effectiveness of state programs.  Orr sponsored the legislation creating ACES and chairs it. He’s also the Senate education budget committee chairman.

The newest report is one of many in recent years on the state’s teacher shortage. The ACES’ analysis also found that:

  • Teaching certificates in several critical fields, including math, science, English and reading, social studies, have declined since 2010;
  • Only administration certificates have increased significantly;
  • In 2021, education colleges awarded more master’s degrees than bachelor’s degrees, a recent change; 
  • While about 50% of Alabama teacher’s have master’s degrees, K-12 student proficiency scores in math and English Language Arts don’t show a correlation between better achievement and more educators with master’s degrees. Similar results have been found in other states that have moved away from advanced degree premiums;
  • Alabama incentivizes master’s degree attainment with a 15% pay increase — more than $500,000 over a 30-year career; and
  • Colleges produced 1,012 elementary teachers with bachelor’s degrees in 2021, 31% fewer than in 2010.

Asked about the Praxis data Thursday, Alabama Commission of Higher Education Executive Director Jim Purcell said his takeaway is that it “is the wrong test.”

“I don’t think it’s the right instrument to determine who is ready to be a teacher,” Purcell, who has been involved in the teacher shortage conversation for several years.

He said the Praxis measures potential educators’ knowledge in two areas: subject content and pedagogy, or the practice of teaching. Pedagogy is taught by the colleges’ departments of education, but subjects like math and science are taught in other departments.

State leaders in recent years have put into law initiatives to get teachers better trained in certain subjects. The 2019 Literacy Act has a teacher coaching requirement and the 2021 Numeracy Act mandates that university education programs teach the same approved math curriculum to new teachers before they enter the classroom.

Orr said he would like more information about how Alabama colleges’ Praxis pass rates compare to other states.

Purcell also said the Praxis results in the report are directly correlated with university’s SAT score requirements.

“What you’ll see … is those schools that have a higher pass rate are more selective (in the students they accept,)” he said.

“What you see on that list is directly correlated with the selectivity of the student population there.”

In the report, ACES recommends Gov. Kay Ivey and the Legislature:

  • Incentivize completion of traditional bachelor’s degree educator preparation programs;
  • Align teacher pay incentives with the state’s desired outcomes; and
  • Publish all educator preparation program enrollments, certification pass rates, and successful completion results each year on the state’s teacher recruitment site,

Marcus Morgan, ACES director, said prospective students should be able to easily determine whether a program will prepare them for their profession.

“We wanted to address the taxpayer accountability within our recommendations,” Morgan told Alabama Daily News. “Public colleges receive significant state funds and taxpayers should be able to see the results received from those funds.”

Orr said Alabama college graduates should expect to be able to get certified in their chosen field.

“Otherwise, we’re shortchanging our students and taxpayers,” Orr said. 

Teacher certification isn’t the only professional licensing issue on state leaders’ radar. Alabama Daily News recently reported on the low passage rates of social work graduates in Alabama on a national certification exam.

Purcell disagrees with the recommendation on data publication but agrees with the report that there is a teacher shortage and “the state is totally relying on alternative certification at this point to address that crisis.” 

In July, the Alabama State Board of Education voted to temporarily lower the required passing score on the Praxis.

The temporary measure will implement a sliding scale that will allow higher grades to compensate for a lower score on the Praxis certification test, The Associated Press reported. It also set up a waiver system in areas with critical shortages, so lower-scoring graduates could teach temporarily. They must eventually pass the test to earn a permanent certificate.

Lawmakers and Ivey in the spring increased teacher pay in an effort to address the shortage. Purcell said he commends leadership for its work on the issue.

“It is a gnarly problem that we’re all going to have to work through,” he said.

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