As States Make It Easier to Become a Teacher, Are They Reducing Barriers...

Teacher Preparation

As States Make It Easier to Become a Teacher, Are They Reducing Barriers or Lowering the Bar?

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Feb 21, 2024

As States Make It Easier to Become a Teacher, Are They Reducing Barriers or Lowering the Bar?

Everett Anderson was determined to become a teacher. It had always been his plan, and he had no reason to doubt it: He’d earned a full scholarship to college and acceptance into a leadership program designed to attract and retain Black male teachers.

There was just one problem.

Even as Anderson excelled in his coursework at Jackson State University, he struggled to pass one of the licensure tests required in Mississippi to gain full admittance into the teacher preparation program at his school.

Anderson had cleared the reading and writing portions of the Praxis Core with ease, but he kept failing the math component. He racked up credits in education courses, inching closer to his degree, but could not, despite his every effort, seem to clinch that math exam.

By his senior year, Anderson had taken — and failed — the math portion 14 times.

Without a passing score, he could not participate in the requisite student teaching experience nor, as a result, finish his degree. It didn’t matter that he’d likely never have to teach the geometry concepts that kept tripping him up (Anderson hoped to teach elementary school).

That was in 2017.

“It began to become emotionally draining. I was starting to feel defeated,” Anderson shares nearly seven years later. “I decided I couldn’t keep doing that to myself.” So he relinquished his dream of becoming a teacher, changed his major to social work and graduated a year later.

Everett Anderson JSU
After relinquishing his dreams of becoming a teacher, Everett Anderson graduated from Jackson State University in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in social work. Photo by Elgin Whavers for Lamar Images.

Anderson was by all accounts a great student with enormous potential as an educator, says Tony Latiker, interim dean of the college of education at Jackson State and adviser to Anderson. His career in social work has offered further proof of that.

“He had the capacity to go in and get his Ph.D.,” Latiker points out, “but he couldn’t teach elementary education because of his performance on the Praxis math exam.”

Anderson is just one example, but education leaders from colleges and universities across the country say they’ve met and mentored others like him throughout their careers — students who might’ve made strong teachers, but were thwarted by the Praxis Core or other “basic skills tests” that states have long required for entry into teacher preparation programs.

In recent years, a number of states have tried to get a handle on the issue. In Louisiana, the legislature created a task force to investigate the declining enrollment in teacher preparation programs. A 2022 report published by that task force revealed that about 1,000 aspiring educators were unable to begin a preparation program each year due to their failure to pass the Praxis Core.

With interest in the teaching profession waning, many feel that it’s irresponsible to turn away those who are inclined to enter the field, especially before they’ve had a chance to undergo the very training that is intended to make them successful in the classroom.

That reality, along with concerns about inequities baked into the assessments and a growing demographic gap between students in America and their teachers, has propelled a number of states to reconsider their approach.

In 2015, 25 states required teacher candidates to pass a basic skills test for admission into a preparation program. By 2021, that had declined to 15. Today, it’s down to 11, with most of the holdouts being red states in the southeastern U.S., according to the most recent count by the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). (Of those 11 states, some allow candidates to fulfill the requirement by meeting a minimum score on the ACT, SAT or GRE.)

Many education leaders have applauded this shift, saying that it allows more students of color, first-generation students and students from low-income families — groups that historically score lower on these tests and are less likely to retake it after initially failing — a shot at becoming teachers, all while removing a barrier that was never serving much of a purpose in the first place.

“The basic skills test is just a very expensive, glorified ACT exam or SAT exam,” notes Paula Calderon, dean of the Southeastern Louisiana University College of Education. (It costs $150 to take the full Praxis Core.)

Calderon, along with Weadé James, vice president of organizational advancement at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), say that tests like the Praxis Core are duplicative.

“Why would a candidate applying to a teacher preparation program need to meet additional requirements, like a basic skills assessment, when they’ve already met the requirements for admission to the university?” asks James. In 2021, AACTE conducted a landscape analysis examining the history of these assessments and found that their impact on teachers of color has been profound and persistent for decades.

Others are more skeptical of the move. They worry that by eliminating these test requirements, states are lowering the bar for becoming a teacher — to the detriment of the profession and, most importantly, of students.

“For states to drop standards without replacing them with another meaningful measure of academic aptitude doesn’t do anyone a favor in the long-term,” notes Heather Peske, president of the NCTQ. “States are making it easier to become a teacher, though the job of being a teacher hasn’t gotten any easier.”

In response to recommendations from its teaching task force, Louisiana’s legislature voted to remove the state’s Praxis Core requirement in summer 2022.

Debbie Thomas, dean of the Grambling State University College of Education, insists that the move didn’t “water down” requirements for becoming a teacher in Louisiana, since all candidates are still required to pass exit exams measuring their content knowledge and maintain certain grades in order to graduate.

Both Thomas and Calderon note that this change has shifted the accountability back to where it ought to be — on individual institutions that are charged with preparing future teachers.

“It looked to the public like we were lowering standards,” acknowledges Calderon, “but actually what we were doing was putting the work and the onus and the burden on university faculty … to know their students and assess their students accordingly.”

She adds: “We can handle the weeding out through professional dispositions and academic advising, through performance in the classroom. We don’t need a standardized exam for that.”

In the first admissions cycle after the state eliminated the requirement, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Louisiana reported a 33 percent increase in enrollment.

“The impact was immediate,” says Thomas of Grambling State, an HBCU.

Without a need to provide test prep for the Praxis Core, Thomas adds, staff can now offer more targeted resources for students’ individual disciplines and help them work toward matriculation. “We used it as an opportunity to reinforce — and in some ways redesign — the academic support to ensure students’ success,” she shares.

The increased enrollment, particularly among candidates of color, is meaningful for the student population, she adds. Research shows that learner outcomes — such as test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment — improve when a student has at least one K-12 teacher whose racial identity reflects theirs. With more than half of the student population today identifying as non-white, the education field has an imperative to diversify, she says.

Many of the aspiring educators at Grambling State who were kept out of the teaching profession because of these tests, Thomas adds, had expressed a desire to work in underserved communities. It’s in these school districts that teacher shortages tend to be most acute.

“We don’t want to leave those potential educators out,” she says. “We want to eliminate those barriers if it’s simply a barrier for barrier’s sake — or for gatekeeping.”

Peske, of the NCTQ, is not convinced that the basic skills test amounts to a needless barrier. On the contrary, she feels that the field should set and uphold rigorous standards for becoming a teacher.

“States need to have guardrails in place to make sure candidates have the knowledge and skills to be effective with students,” says Peske.

Those standards can take a variety of forms, she notes. For example, she isn’t opposed to states making these tests optional, so long as they have other key measures in place for evaluating aspiring educators’ academic aptitude.

She worries that the trend of removing basic skills test requirements is catching on due to concerns — both real and perceived — over surging teacher shortages.

Peske isn’t alone in her unease. Tom Philion, dean of the Northeastern Illinois University College of Education, concedes that, amid COVID-era licensing waivers and a flurry of evolving standards, the field has entered a “messy” period. (Illinois eliminated its basic skills test requirement in 2019 and has suspended its performance assessment of teachers, the edTPA, through August 2025 while a newly established task force evaluates the assessment system.)

“There’s more questioning going on, among all parties involved in teacher preparation,” Philion admits. “We want more teachers and more diversity in the workforce. The price we’re paying for that is more concerns about people’s basic skills and knowledge. That’s sort of the trade-off we’re making.”

There’s a body of research examining whether there are links between performance on these assessments and eventual effectiveness in the classroom. Many proponents of eliminating basic skills test requirements argue that existing studies show little to no correlation, while opponents of the trend point to research showing a positive relationship. What’s perplexing is that the advocates and objectors sometimes point to the same studies — they’re just interpreting the results differently.

Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research, has authored numerous studies on teacher certification and effectiveness, including some cited by those arguing both for and against doing away with these exams. The reality, he says, is nuanced.

There are different types of basic skills tests out there. The Praxis Core is the most common, but it’s not the only one. And how predictive those tests are of eventual teacher success depends largely on the setting where it’s studied — factors such as grade level, subject and intended outcome. Generally speaking, he has found the relationship to be stronger in older grades and in more technical subjects (think: biology).

Regardless, tests are imperfect, he acknowledges. If the standard is set low, some ill-equipped candidates will end up at the front of a classroom. If the standard is set very high, some potentially effective educators will never get a chance to teach.

“It’s a little bit of a judgment call, about where you set these thresholds,” he says.

Goldhaber suggests that rather than a pass-fail approach, teacher candidates should be able to submit their scores as an additional piece of information for programs to consider — similar to how ACT and SAT scores are used by college admissions officers.

Anderson, the Jackson State student who couldn’t pass the Praxis Core math exam, might have benefited from that kind of holistic approach.

In December, he defended his dissertation and now holds a doctorate in higher education administration.

Anderson was right that he would become a teacher: Today, he’s an adjunct professor at a community college, with hopes of becoming a full-time professor and eventually earning tenure.

Everett Anderson
Anderson is an adjunct professor at a community college now. Photo by Elgin Whavers.

Mississippi now provides more avenues for prospective teachers to demonstrate their academic prowess. If those options had been available when Anderson was enrolled at Jackson State, his grade point average would have been more than sufficient to have the Praxis Core waived, removing the barrier to his becoming a K-12 teacher.

He has no regrets, nor any bitterness about it, he says. Things worked out for him.

“But,” he says, “I’m excited for others to get to reap those benefits.”

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