Would-be teachers had two options on their path to a state license last fall. Both were daunting.
They could hurry and cram for a test that would soon go away, chock full of material they’d yet to see in class.
Or they could wait a while longer and take their chances on a new, more exacting exam without much sense of their odds of passing or how many times they might end up paying to retake that untested test.
Diana Rogers-Adkinson, dean of the education college at Southeast Missouri State University, said the transition left education students unprepared for either choice.
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“It just made me sick to the stomach,” watching so many students fail, said Rogers-Adkinson, who worries it could mean a shortage of teachers, especially in science and math.
Yet others say these weren’t pop quizzes. Prospective teachers, and the universities accepting tuition to prepare them for the classroom, had long known about the switch. If the students weren’t ready for the tests, they say, that reflects failure of either their preparation or the professors who should have guided them.
Missouri state educators switched from the old, Praxis II, exams that prospective teachers needed to pass to get their licenses to the new, Missouri Content Assessment tests, as of September 2014.
Paul Katnik, assistant commissioner for educator quality at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said teacher candidates had about 15 months to prepare, take and pass the the old exam before it was discontinued.
For many students, rushing to take the old test meant just “putting their head in a book and cramming for an exam they just weren’t ready to take,” Rogers-Adkinson said.
Missouri’s teacher candidates this spring, Rogers-Adkinson said, got caught in the middle of the state transitioning to new subject content exams that they have to pass before they’re certified to teach.
Want to teach math or science, history or English? You have to pass the test that proves you mastered the subject. As more rigor was infused into Missouri K-12 standards, teacher tests got tougher too.
The state could have lowered the passing score the way it did when the new Missouri college teacher-preparation program entrance exam was rolled out, said Dan Gordon, chairman of the professional education department at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville. A low pass rate, Gordon said, would give students and faculty time to get more familiar with the new test, and state officials time to fix problems.
Gordon said faculty across the state are also concerned that students pay between $77 and $225 to take content assessments that haven’t been fully vetted.
One of the computer-based, multiple-choice tests can take one to six hours to complete. The social studies exam includes six different sections.
Missouri state education officials said they don’t yet have statewide pass or fail rates on the new tests. But some college education professors are certain more students failed than in previous years.
At Southeast Missouri State, “we definitely have an increased fail rate compared to previous years,” Rogers-Adkinson said. She estimates the pass rate has dropped about 15 to 20 percent.
“We have had some students fail two and three times,” she said. Students pay every time they re-take a test.
This month, five students have asked Rogers-Adkinson for vouchers to help cover the cost.
She feels particularly sad about a single mom who waited to test because she couldn’t afford to take it earlier. She has graduated, but she failed the new content assessment exam three times, Rogers-Adkinson said. Graduates can get a provisional teaching certificate that would allow them to teach until they get a license.
“This student is the type who you know worked really hard,” she said. “I feel (bad) that these changes happened at the end of her degree.”
Lauren Powers, who graduates in May with a degree to teach middle school science and history, couldn’t pass the content test she took either because “there were things on there that I had never even had in a college course,” Powers said.
She said she’d have to take another five or six coursesto learn much of the material on the exam.
“Like macro and micro economics,” Powers said, “I’ve heard of it. But I hadn’t studied it. And when would I ever have to use that in a middle school classroom?”
She said a friend had tested three times without passing. “She told me she wouldn’t take it anymore,” Powers said, “because she felt defeated.”
At some Missouri campuses, students who haven’t passed the content assessment tests can’t student teach. At other schools, they can. With rising numbers failing the new tests, that can further slow progress of students from some campuses to become full-fledged teachers.
But state officials said the change has been in the works for nearly five years.
“They knew this was coming,” Katnik said.
“What has changed is the rigor was raised on the new exam,” said Sarah Potter, spokeswoman for the state education department. “Teacher candidates are being asked to do more within the standards.”
Katnik said universities across the state have been involved with developing the assessments and universities have been kept informed about the tests as they took shape.
“We knew the tests were going to change, but they didn’t give us the approved framework for the test until August 2014 for a test they launched in September,” Rogers-Adkinson said. “We can’t change our entire curriculum based on the draft of a test.”
Rogers-Adkinson says she’s not opposed to cranking up the difficulty on the tests and making sure teachers truly know the content and how to teach it. She just doesn’t think the way the state has rolled out the new test is fair to hundreds of college juniors and seniors and worries about a shortage of teachers in some areas.
The state expects a teacher shortage in some subject areas until college curricula and students adjust to the new tests.
Etta Hollins at the University of Missouri-Kansas City is not so worried. Hollins, a teacher preparation professor, said if students are unprepared in subjects like science or language arts, that reflects their coursework in general studies — not in their education classes.
“We don’t teach history or math,” Hollins said. Schools of education teach students how to present subject matter knowledge in a classroom, she said.
At UMKC, she said, counselors encouraged students to brush up on subject content to pass the tests.
“Certainly, students tend to be concerned when tests are changed, especially when the test is intended to be more rigorous,” Hollins said. “I have been at this a long time and gone though this on multiple occasions and the concern is usually short-lived.”
She said the key has been to make sure students know what they are in for.
“Yes, we had some students … complain,” Hollins said. “But we didn’t have them lined up to complain.”
Katnik said it will be summer before the state has enough test data to review and tweak the exams — to prepare teachers to deliver lessons that meet state standards — “so that they are doing what we want them to do.”