Would-be teachers in Mississippi struggle to pass certification exams, advocates call for evaluation of prep programs

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Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

K’Acia Drummer monitors students individually while they complete their assignments during their enrichment period.

CLARKSDALE – Cleveland native, K’Acia Drummer, knew she wanted to teach after graduating from Tougaloo College with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2015.

The 26-year-old looked up the requirements to obtain a teacher’s license on the Mississippi Department of Education’s (MDE) website. In addition to a bachelor’s degree, she needed to enroll in a traditional or alternate route teacher preparation program and take the required Praxis tests – the national certification exams that measure would-be teachers content knowledge in specific subjects needed for teaching.

So, she began working as substitute teacher in Greenville Public Schools in October 2016, making $11, 520 a year. With no real guidance or preparation, Drummer decided to take the Praxis Core.

She failed and vowed to never take it again, she said.

Becoming certified in Mississippi has been a challenge for aspiring teachers like Drummer. One of the issues is the ability to pass the Praxis exams, according to Mississippi Today in a three-part series on the teacher shortage.

Minority teacher candidates – traditionally underserved, with limited advance courses during K-12 education – struggle the most in becoming certified. Many college programs don’t fill in the gaps, leaving the students to fall in between the cracks.

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), advocates for more diversity in the teacher workforce, recently released a study illustrating the struggles of candidates of color on Praxis exams. The results also show how teacher preparation programs aren’t requiring teacher candidates to take classes they need in order to teach the necessary content in the classroom.

Teachers interested in elementary education fail licensing exams because there’s a lack of “alignment between preparation program coursework and the content knowledge that states have determined an aspiring teacher needs to be an effective elementary teacher,” the study cited.

“This is content that teacher candidates should enter college already knowing so it shouldn’t be up to teacher prep programs to teach content,” said Hannah Putman, Managing Director of Research for NCTQ, in an interview with a Mississippi Today reporter.

“All college kids, all people, who have finished high school should know it but the fact is that they don’t, so it really falls on teacher prep programs. They are the last line of defense, filling these gaps.”

Currently, Mississippi has 33,936 teachers. Of that, 24,461 are white, 9,064 are black, and 189 are Hispanic.

For first-time pass rates on the exam on all four subject areas, the findings of the report – “A Fair Chance: Simple steps to strengthen and diversify the teacher workforce” – show:

• 46 percent of teacher candidates pass

• 38 percent of African Americans pass

• 57 percent of Hispanics pass

• 75 percent of white candidates pass

The NCTQ, a Washington, D.C.-based research policy group, also advocates for tougher evaluations of classroom teachers. In its report, the organization examined 817 undergraduate elementary education teacher preparation programs which makes up 71 percent of the nation’s programs. It also analyzed 250 graduate programs and about 30 alternate route programs.

Are institutions preparing students to teach after college?

Few prep programs require coursework in the four main subject areas students need to know to teach effectively or to pass the Praxis exams. According to the study:

• Only half of the undergraduate programs require a children’s literature course that aligns with elementary curriculum

• One in four programs cover math content

• Two in three programs don’t require science 

• One in three programs don’t require history or geography 

Only 21 of 817 undergraduate prep programs “reasonably” align content coverage with most elementary topics — California, Michigan, and Texas, to name a few. None of these programs are in Mississippi, the study found.

817 undergraduate programs requirements of subject areas coursework

Nine of the 13 Mississippi institutions mentioned in the study require students to take less than half of the classes recommended. (Go here to see the full list of requirements of Mississippi schools.)

“It’s kind of a phenomenon that there’s no real guidance and no requirements are given to teacher candidates that will allow them to be prepared for classrooms,” said Kate Walsh, executive director of NCTQ.

Drummer didn’t enter through a traditional prep program, but she has taught seventh- through 12th-graders. She recalled initially not being efficient in the knowledge she was teaching.

That isn’t uncommon for new teachers.

In a U.S. Department of Education survey, two-thirds of new teachers admit to not having a strong grasp of elementary subjects.

Frustrated with missing the mark by a couple points here and about eleven points there, Drummer wasn’t sure why she couldn’t pass the test. But she settled on one issue: the content on the exams don’t mimic what teachers actually teach in the classroom, she said.

“I’ve taken two different tests and on the (English/language arts) test you talk about Victorian periods, Romanticism, Macbeth, The Odyssey, Homer – you don’t teach that (in the classroom) anymore. If you walk into a classroom right now, you’ll never hear that,” said Drummer.

“I had a question that had a list of books and the authors … where do you get that from? How am I supposed to remember these authors?”

Seth Weiner

Seth Weiner, executive director of the Educational Testing Services, one of the nonprofits that administer and create Praxis tests, said they are aware of this problem which is why they review the tests internally and externally to make sure its “balanced,” he said.

“We don’t want to privilege one person’s culture or literature over another person’s culture or literature,” said Weiner.

“We do a lot of counting when we review the test to have a fair representation of cultural achievements of men, women, African-American authors and white authors, Asian American authors and Hispanic Americans … we don’t want to alienate anyone when they’re taking a test.”

Black teachers pass Praxis exams at lower rates

Recruiting and retaining certified individuals in the state has been a decades-long battle, particularly in school districts in the Mississippi Delta. Last year, at least 19 percent of teachers throughout seven Delta districts were not certified. In some cases the rate of teachers lacking certification was as high as 34 percent.

Drummer, determined to become a certified teacher, decided to take the ACT in 2018 instead of retaking the Praxis Core. She scored a 21, meaning she was exempt from taking the Praxis Core. (The average score in Mississippi is 18.6).

She created a binder filled with Praxis materials and practice tests she bought, forcing herself to read the pages back and forth everyday.

Over a year, she took the Praxis Subject Test, or Praxis II, in English/language arts (ELA) seven times in several locations across the state. She failed each time, costing more time, patience and more than $1,000.

Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

K’Acia Drummer, seventh- and eighth-grade English teacher, shows her eighth-graders where they are and how much growth they need in order to make the best scores on English and math tests

“Out of those seven times, none of the things I’ve actually had the hands on training, the teaching experience out in the field none of that is on the test,” she said.

Aspiring black and Hispanic teachers pass licensing exams at lower percentages than their white counterparts.

Only 46 percent of teacher candidates pass the ETS Praxis Elementary Education: Multiple Subjects test on the first attempt.

In comparison to other professions, this is extremely low, the study stated. For example, 69 percent of lawyers taking the bar exam pass on the first try. And 90 percent of doctors taking the internal medicine exam pass.

National Council on Teacher Quality

Final pass rates by race and ethnicity

The numbers are misleading, said Weiner, the ETS director, because people glance at the pass rates for those who have taken all four sections of the tests instead of the rates for them individually.

Individuals who can’t pass their exams have been products of inequitable K-12 education. And they don’t have a solid foundation in the material, said NCTQ officials.

Erica Webber-Jones, 15-year Praxis trainer and secretary-treasurer for the Mississippi Association of Educators, pointed out the differences in courses provided to K-12 students in predominantly black schools.

“At the black high school, they had a choice of seven different math classes to take while at the white school there were about 21. If you factor in rural or black, the course offerings affect how well students do on Praxis exams,” said Webber-Jones.

Weiner said he doesn’t think it’s about the Praxis tests as much as it is about the achievement gaps.

“I am absolutely convinced that it stems from a deep seeded inequity in this country where there are deep seeded roots … I don’t think it’s about test,” he said.

Although only 18 states require this multiple subject test, it is still the most widely used test.

Mississippi requires the Praxis Elementary Education: Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, which combines content with a pedagogy assessment (the practice of teaching). The difference with this test is that it combines all of the different content areas under one test instead of having separate sections.

“It’s all kind of lumped together, and they actually have fewer questions in each subject area than what you see in the stronger tests that other states require,” said Putman.

For example, there may be 17 questions about social studies on the test that Mississippi requires compared to 60 questions on the multiple subjects test.

“To put it all together with teacher prep programs you’re seeing weaker content requirements basically in line with what the rest of the country has where they’re not making sure that candidates learn core content,” said Putman.

The pass rate for test takers in Mississippi is 86 percent, but that number reflects both those who pass their licensing exams on the first try and those who have had multiple chances to pass.

Walsh, the NCTQ director, says that Mississippi’s required test is “probably the easiest in the country to pass.”

What’s being done?

Initiatives are ongoing to increase diversity in the classroom and get more candidates of color licensed, said state officials: 

• Round table discussions about the ACT

• Bringing together black male educators and HBCUs

• Hiring a full-time teacher recruitment and retention employee and expanding Praxis preparation

• Creating new pathways for teachers to get licensed with a $4.1 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation

• Analyzing pass-rate data on Praxis tests and strengthening policy to review prep programs

A February news release from the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), outlined measures taken by public universities to better prepare the “next generation of educators.”

The measures include extensive clinical practice and high quality field experiences to allow candidates to have experience teaching in elementary schools, expanding partnerships with schools, working with digital age learners in traditional and nontraditional settings, along with other professional development opportunities.

Even with innovation, candidates are still failing the tests. Last year, the state Board of Education voted to lower the cut scores for the math Praxis. Critics argued they were lowering the bar.

“It makes my blood boil because those students don’t get to go back to that grade … That teacher is teaching those that are traditionally underserved,” said Walsh.

MDE officials say lowering the score was based off an “adjustment,” and does not lower the benchmark.

“ETS has identified the math Praxis Core is being redesigned … it was designed around Common Core math and a vast majority of candidates entered … have not gone through Common Core,” said Debra Burson, director of Educator Preparation for the MDE.

Although passing the test doesn’t mean a teacher can’t be effective in the classroom, research shows teachers who have higher passing scores tend to be more effective.

Students are hurting the most

Despite the difficulties, Drummer didn’t give up.

In 2018, she sought help from Regional Initiatives for Sustainable Education (RISE), a Delta-based nonprofit helping teachers to pass the Praxis. After getting additional tutoring, she finally passed the Praxis in January.

This was her ninth try, but her first time taking the special education test.

She said she passed because this test teaches you how to be a teacher and deal with students.

“If we’re going to be tested on content, if content is what you want us to know, we also need to be able to be prepared on how to be a teacher in a particular area of study as opposed to testing us on content and not on how to be an effective teacher for our students,” said Drummer.

She’s now teaching seventh- and eighth-grade English at W.A. Higgins Middle School in Clarksdale.

But the inefficiencies of testing and lack of preparation hinders the students, the most, said Webber-Jones.

Mississippi Association of Educators

Erica Webber-Jones

“It’s almost like a domino effect. First you have trouble passing exam and spend tons of money trying to get certified. Once you spend all the money to get certified, you go into a school district and don’t receive adequate pay. Many people don’t decide to stay and move out,” said Webber-Jones.

“Students are left behind and cycle repeats itself over and over and over again.”

Not being prepared fails the students, said Drummer, adding she had 15- and 16-year-olds in her seventh-grade class last year.

“The system failed them. The system failed them because (teachers) were unprepared. They didn’t know what to teach. They didn’t have the content to teach,” said Drummer.

The state Department of Education acknowledges the problems and are working to do better, officials said.

“We recognize the problems. We know that we have some issues and we’re all trying to figure out the best way to do it,” said Burson.  

“We need diverse teachers of color … not just for children of color, but for all children … We know we have institutions that do it really well and we know others that are struggling. We’re here to support.”

Although this problem didn’t start with higher education, it can end with higher education, advocates say.

“The fulfillment is really completing the dream of these folks to finally get a college degree, not to hand them an empty piece of paper … It’s not imposing a burden on higher ed, these are courses already on campus. Make sure they get what they need,” said Walsh, the NCTQ director.

In order to reverse decades of historic segregation, systemic racism, and inequality in the educational institutions, each stakeholder test makers, state legislators, state education officials, and school district representatives must collaborate and discuss what’s going on, advocates say.

“We have the state Department of Education doing one thing, school districts doing another, and then exams putting content out to assess nationwide instead of it being geared specifically to Mississippi … there will always be a problem,” said Webber-Jones.

Contributing: Kelsey Davis