Tougher Tests Fuel Teacher Shortage, Educators Say

In a classroom at Miami-Dade College’s InterAmerican Campus, 10 aspiring teachers are learning how to document the special needs of what they hope will be students in classes they will one day lead. 

But, in addition to the desire to teach, nine of those 10 students share something else: they failed at least one of the tests required to be certified to teach in Florida.

Three years ago, the state made the certification tests much harder, part of the federal Race to the Top program’s emphasis on improving teacher effectiveness.

The Florida Department of Education says the test was made more rigorous because it “is committed to ensuring that Florida's students have access to high quality educators at every step along their education journey … and the teacher certification exams are essential to ensuring their teachers have the skills and knowledge necessary to help them succeed.”

But one effect of the harder tests, educators tell NBC 6, is fewer students passing, exacerbating what is already a shortage of experienced, well-qualified teachers.

If the state wanted to make it harder to teach, they succeeded.

Just look at the change in average pass rates for the two years before and after the tests were toughened: general knowledge essay and reading -- down 30 percent; K-6 language arts and reading -- down 38 percent; and middle grade English – down up to 60 percent.

“The tests are harder and the passing scores are higher, so it’s a double whammy for students,” said Dr. Susan Neimand, dean of MDC’s College of Education. “They get slapped on both sides of their face.”

So how hard are these tests?

TEST BREAK: Try to answer this question: (Correct response below, and just before the next TEST BREAK question)

DIRECTIONS: Choose the sentence in which the modifiers are correctly placed. 
A.   While protesting the Vietnam War, clashes between Chicago police and demonstrators resulted in over 175 arrests at the DemocraticNational Convention.
B. While protesting the Vietnam War, Chicago police arrested over 175 demonstrators during clashes at the Democratic National Convention.
C. While protesting the Vietnam War, over 175 demonstrators were arrested for clashing with Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention.
D. While protesting the Vietnam War and clashing with the Chicago police, over 175 demonstrators were arrested.

The Florida Teacher Certification Exam includes four sections in its general knowledge test, including the English language skills portion from which the questions above is drawn.

Claudia Hernandez, an MDC junior majoring in exceptional student education, has failed to pass the essay portion twice. In 2014, 93 percent of test-takers passed the essay; in 2015, after the change, 63 percent passed.

“Well, it’s embarrassing,” she said after class recently. “I’m a very capable person.”

The Miami High graduate has worked in a museum for a decade, educating underprivileged kids, and tutors some of her peers. She wants to teach because, she said, “I love learning, am a lifelong learner, extremely enthusiastic about science in particular.”

But she is perplexed by the higher failure rates. “I know a lot of my classmates are struggling and they are intelligent people, they are capable people and that exam does not reflect how you’re going to be as a teacher.”

Dean Neimand agreed.

“I absolutely think it’s totally unfair,” she said of the tougher tests. “I think the test is rigged to be very, very tricky.”

TEST BREAK: So, was that first question tricky? The Answer was C: While protesting the Vietnam War, over 175 demonstrators were arrested for clashing with Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention.

Now for a little harder one:

DIRECTIONS: Choose the option that corrects and error in the underlined portion(s). If no error exists, choose "No change is necessary."

These two brands of (A) inexpensive laundry detergent both performed
(B) fantastic on those (C) terrible stains.

A. inexpensively
B. fantastically
C. terribly
D. No change is necessary

The FDOE said the new, harder tests, are aligned with the goal of improving teacher effectiveness.

“There’s no correlation between passing a test and being an effective teacher,” Neimand said. “People who would potentially be excellent teachers are being discouraged from going into the teaching profession.”

People like Christopher Sanchez, who just retook the English portion for a third time.

“I was spending hours and hours and hours studying and when I took the exam I didn’t pass anything, I was very downhearted.”

But he continues to try, paying $150 each time he takes a retest.

“I do believe in testing,: he said, “but to this extent where we’re spending hundreds of dollars.”

The harder the test, the more money they spend and, ultimately, the more money paid to Pearson, the company FDOE contracts with to produce, administer and grade the tests.

It’s now on track to be paid $57 million by FDOE since 2012, an amount boosted, its contract notes, by the “escalation in rigor.”

“This is all about making money,” Neiman said, “The test provider is making a fortune off of the students.”

Pearson said it is just doing what its client, the state, is requesting – and the state agrees.

TEST BREAK: The previous answer is B, “fantastically.” This one may take some mad math skills.:

A child has 26 pennies, 15 nickels, 21 dimes, and 18 quarters in a coin bank. When the child picks up the bank, a single coin falls out. What is the probability that the coin is a quarter?

A. 3/16
B. 9/40
C. 21/80
D. 26/80

Forty-three percent of test-takers failed the mathematics portion on the general knowledge test in 2016.

Besides discouraging potentially good teachers and costing struggling students more money, the new, harder tests also contribute to what Neimand calls Florida’s “critical teacher shortage.”

A study by the Learning Policy Institute ranks Florida among the worst in promoting an environment that attracts enough qualified teachers. The ranks among the worst in the share of classrooms led by inexperienced or uncertified teachers. When new students fail the certification test, they cannot teach – but certain college graduates can be hired without certification for up to three years.

Oh, and that last answer is B: 9/40.

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