Superintendents struggling to fill teaching positions before the new school year might be able to consider a new group of applicants under a proposal being discussed by the Alabama Board of Education (ALBOE).

The ALBOE is expected to vote as early as this month on a proposal that would lower the scores needed to pass the Praxis teacher qualification tests, which are needed in the most common route to teacher certification in Alabama. The Praxis tests vary depending on the subject and grade level and are designed to measure content knowledge.

The proposal before the Board is to accept teaching candidates who pass the Praxis tests within one standard error of measure of the currently required scores. Candidates with a below-passing score would need to either demonstrate a higher GPA in their teaching field or participate in 100 hours of professional learning.

The ALBOE is now tasked with balancing the need to ensure quality educators are in the classroom with the need to expand the pool of teacher applicants for schools to fill vacant positions.

The proposal to change the Praxis test requirement is the latest in a series of certification changes aimed at addressing Alabama’s teacher shortage.

“We are still hearing daily from superintendents that they do not have enough applicants for jobs,” said State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey. “So even with those things, ...we’re making progress, but this could put more people in.”

A spokesman for the Alabama Department of Education told 1819 News that Alabama’s passing rates for Praxis exams are not public data. However, Mackey and ALBOE board members did discuss some scores during June’s work session.

For example, Mackey said 89% of education students in Alabama are currently passing the Praxis for early childhood education. He said for middle school mathematics, the passing rate is 51%.  For middle school language arts, the pass rate is 27%.

“I’m looking at the pass rate for mathematics content at 31%,” ALBOE member, Dr. Wayne Reynolds said. “At best, that’s abysmal. And I’ve had people comment to me in the business community and education community that some of that is because we’re not producing very good high school students. And that’s transferring into their inability to perform at a somewhat base level before they get into teacher education.”

Alabama Department of Education Chief of Staff Mark Marcum said lowering the required Praxis score by one standard error of measure would have granted certification to nearly 1200 more teachers between 2019 and 2021.

Educators express broad support

The Praxis test is one way to measure teacher candidates’ content knowledge, but it is not the only way to gauge adequate content knowledge,” Emily Sims told 1819 News.

Sims is Associate Dean and Certification Officer at the University of Alabama. She says many of the university’s teaching candidates achieve passing scores on their required program Praxis test, but some others take it multiple times before passing.

“I have witnessed passionate, committed teacher candidates change their majors or, worse, never earn a degree simply because they were unable to obtain a passing Praxis test score,” Sims said. “Test anxiety is real. When candidates take the Praxis test numerous times and their scores decrease, you must pause to wonder why. I am not convinced that candidates know ‘less’ in their content area each time they retake the test. It is high stakes, and it’s timed, which, for many, is a recipe for undesired outcomes.”

When asked if changes to the required Praxis scores are needed, Sims called this an opportunity.

“I believe this is an opportunity to investigate creative but rigorous ways to envision what is truly essential for beginning teachers to know and be able to do as it relates to state teacher certification,” Sims said. “Teaching is one of the few professions where an individual is expected to know everything and be everything on day one.”

Dr. Lesley Sheek, Assistant Professor in UAB’s School of Education, noted that Praxis tests are used by at least 40 states in some way. She called the tests fair “in that it measures common content and that test takers are informed through study guides about what is tested.”

Sheek said while the tests appear to be challenging, UAB students have a high success rate.

“For UAB students, the change in Praxis requirements might lead to larger numbers of candidates in the pool of future teachers, particularly for the programs that assess candidates' knowledge prior to admission to the programs,” Sheek said. “Based on data recently collected to evaluate the potential effect if the State Board chooses to lower the Praxis scores, at UAB as many as 29 more candidates could qualify for the education program if the cut score for the test is lowered by an additional standard error of measurement.”

In school districts like Blount County, Superintendent Rodney Green says he’d like to have those additional candidates considered for positions in his district. He’s five months into the hiring process and still working to fill positions for the upcoming school year.

“Tests don’t always give you a true picture of the ability of an individual,” Green said. “That’s true of students as well. But we have to have those things. On a temporary basis, what the state’s trying to do is a good strategy of increasing the teachers in the pool and then it’s going to be up to superintendents, principals to evaluate and determine which of these teachers [need] to be retained and which of those are not performing at a high enough level to teach in the classroom.”

Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) Executive Director Sally Smith told 1819 News she supports a short-term suspension of some teacher certification requirements.

“AASB urges the state’s colleges of education to eliminate barriers to graduation while the SDE addresses pathways to certification,” Smith said. “AASB is confident school boards and school administrators statewide will continue to put the best-qualified candidates available in the classroom.”

Alabama’s “critical” teacher shortage

Blount County Superintendent Rodney Green supports the proposed changes, hoping they can help him fill his vacant positions.   

“Right now, I still have about ten positions open in speech and English learners and special education,” Green told 1819 News. “Those positions, I will fill them by the time school starts, but will the quality of applicants be where we need them to be? Probably not, because it’s getting late already and people that are very qualified are already in good positions.”

Green says math and science teachers are also tough to fill, particularly in rural communities.

“If I hire someone from the Birmingham area, the Cullman area, the Gadsden area and they’re driving 30-45 minutes - in the market we have now, teachers don’t have to do that,” Green added.

ALBOE member Tonya Chestnut said the majority of superintendents in her area, which includes the Black Belt, are “scrambling, searching for a warm body to teach math and science and special education. They’re saying, ‘They’re not there.’

“I would rather see a person who has gone through the Teacher Ed program who may or not have passed the exam, the Praxis exam, rather than someone who… completed high school, who’s serving as a long-term sub for the duration of the year,” Chestnut said.

Green emphasized that if more certification changes are approved, principals would still have the ability to choose whether to accept these teachers into their schools.

“They’re temporary strategies,” Green said of proposals. “Because you’re trying to get more people into the education pool. Then you rely on professional judgment, observation, performance to determine are these applicants going to be able to do a good job? That sounds crazy, but right now getting more people in the pool is very important. Because you’ve got, when a class meets this Fall, you’ve got to put a teacher in front of them.”

Changing requirements: The proposal’s fine print

Right now, students in Alabama’s universities must pass both the EdTPA and the Praxis tests to obtain teacher certification. The EdTPA assesses an individual’s capability of teaching material in the classroom and assessing students’ knowledge. Alabama’s passing rate of the EdTPA is 85-97 percent, according to information shared in the ALBOE’s June work session.

The Praxis tests can be the greater challenge for students to pass. These tests measure content knowledge, and passage rates vary depending on the subject and grade level.

Alabama’s required Praxis scores currently align with national standards and vary depending on the subject and grade level.

The ALBOE is now discussing granting teacher certifications for candidates who score within “one standard error of measure” of the required score. Candidates who depend on the lower Praxis score would also be required to have at least a 2.75 GPA in their teaching field, as opposed to the required 2.5 GPA for candidates who pass the Praxis test at the currently required score.

A third option under consideration by ALDOE would be for candidates without the 2.75 GPA or the passing Praxis Score. It would allow for students to pass Praxis within one standard error of measure, obtain at least a 2.5 GPA, and also to complete 100 hours of approved high-quality professional learning.

Mackey said he’s talked with deans in Alabama’s universities about changing the required score.

“If they’re three standards of error below, that may be more of a content issue,” Mackey said. “But they feel if they’re within one standard of error, and they’ve got test anxiety, or an issue, maybe even a learning disability… Then it gives that student a chance to say okay, I’m close. But I’ve demonstrated in my course work that I can do the social studies, the math, the reading. And it allows them to move forward.”

So what is one standard error of measure? It would be different for each Praxis test.

Dr. Deanise Peacock, Assessment Coordinator for Alabama Department of Education, told 1819 News national standards for Praxis tests are adopted based on studies in which Alabama participates. She says those studies determine a “cut score,” determined to be a reasonable score for the content knowledge of that field.

“It’s a mathematical formula based on numbers, of course, so it would look different in each scenario,” Peacock said. “You would have to take each test to determine what score would equal one standard deviation or one standard error of measure below.”

“[Standard Error of Measure] can be interpreted as an index of expected variation if the same test-taker could be tested repeatedly on different forms of the same test without benefiting from practice or being hampered by fatigue,” explained Alescia Marie Dingle, Public Relations Manager for ETS, which manages the Praxis tests.

Other Certification Changes Made to combat Teacher Shortage

About 300,000 public school teachers and other workers left the field between February 2020 and May 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported. That’s a nearly 3% drop in that workforce.

Alabama Department of Education does not have data for how many teachers have left the profession in this state.

Superintendents are reporting that fewer teachers are retiring in the upcoming school year. Alabama’s new teacher pay raise and other certification changes could be contributing to that.

For example, in Blount County, 28 teachers retired after the last school year, compared to 40 the previous year.

In an effort to help with the shortage, Alabama has already begun implementing other certification changes.

The state suspended renewal requirements for teacher certificates expiring in June 2022 or June 2023.

“If you had a certificate expired you can now renew it with only meeting the background clearance requirement,” Shavon Harris said. “It was also to give a reprieve to the existing teachers and not having them to meet requirements.”

Harris is Certification Coordinator for Alabama Department of Education.

She said Alabama also temporarily suspended testing requirements for candidates applying for certification from another state, if they hold the professional certificate in that state and can pass Alabama’s background requirement. This change began in January.  

The state also created an alternate route for special education for grades 6-12 so that will be available for school systems for this upcoming school year.

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