Student girl hand doing exam checking notebook

Student girl hand doing exam checking notebook

More than half of prospective elementary teachers in Colorado fail their licensure exams on the first try, and of those who fail, 40% don’t try again, according to new data from the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Only 46% of state elementary teacher candidates pass their exam on the first try, similar to the national average.

Teacher candidates of color are more likely to fail on a first attempt than their white counterparts — and slightly more likely to not try again, derailing those students’ aspirations, and hindering efforts to build a more diverse teacher workforce that would benefit all students. 

For example, at the University of Northern Colorado, the state’s largest teacher prep program, 45% of elementary test-takers passed on their first try, compared with 33% of test-takers of color at the school.

“What would our teacher workforce look like if these teacher candidates of color could get their best score on their first attempt?” said Stephanie Perez-Carrillo, manager of policy and partnerships for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “And then what would that mean for our students of color, to see someone who looks like them in the classroom? We’re missing out on the richness of their experience in the classroom.”

Perez-Carrillo knows firsthand how upsetting it is to fail a licensure exam. She herself took the secondary math licensure exam seven times in her first year of teaching but never passed. She wasn’t invited back to her high school, even though her students did well on their own tests. She ultimately left teaching.

“I knew I could teach those kids, I knew I could motivate them, but that door was shut,” she said. “It was very demoralizing.”

The NCTQ report provides much more detail than was previously available on which teacher education programs set students up for success on their licensure exams. 

Licensure exams primarily cover content that teachers would need to know in order to teach that same content to their students. Colorado offers 48 endorsement — or specialization — areas for licensure, but only elementary, early childhood, and special education teachers must pass content tests adopted by the State Board of Education. The elementary test includes several subtests, and candidates must pass all of them. Other teachers have more flexibility in how they demonstrate knowledge, depending on their program requirements.

The Colorado Department of Education reports how many students from each of 23 traditional and 33 alternative programs ultimately pass their licensure exam in any subject area in the previous year, while the NCTQ’s analysis looks at data from 2015 to 2018 from the elementary education licensure exam.

The analysis includes how many people pass on the first try, how many pass overall, and how many walk away after failing the test, broken down by program, though some programs did not provide enough data. They also look at how white teacher candidates perform versus candidates of color and which subtests present the most challenges for test-takers. Much of this data has not been publicly available until now.

Colorado will start reporting similar data later this year, part of a new law that aims to identify ways to diversify the teacher workforce. State education officials also plan to pick up work that was derailed by the pandemic: a series of data “deep dives” with the state’s educator preparation programs to better understand gaps and necessary changes.

There is significant variation among programs. Eighty-nine percent of elementary education test-takers from private Colorado College passed on their first attempt, compared with 13% from the Centennial BOCES alternative certification program. 

On average, 72% of potential Colorado teachers eventually passed their elementary licensure exam, ranging from 100% of nine candidates from Colorado College and six candidates at Western Colorado University’s alternative certification program to just 43% of seven candidates from University of Phoenix-Colorado. Among larger programs: 73% of elementary test-takers at the University of Northern Colorado ultimately passed, compared to 85% of University of Colorado Boulder candidates and 58% at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

While Colorado test-takers pass on their first try at rates similar to the national average, they are almost twice as likely to walk away after failing on the first attempt. 

New teachers pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket to take these exams, so there is a lot at stake. 

“Low first-attempt pass rates may point to a misalignment between the preparation candidates receive and the state’s expectations for future elementary teachers,” the report says. “On an individual level, failing these tests can be demoralizing, causing delays in job searches and unforeseen expenses to study for and retake the test.”

The report singles out financial challenges as one reason candidates of color and those from low-income backgrounds stop after failing the first time, and recommends states look for ways to address cost. 

The NCTQ report highlights four Colorado teacher education programs doing a good job of helping candidates from underrepresented backgrounds make it to the classroom. Colorado Mesa University is only moderately selective in accepting students and enrolls more Pell students than the state average, but its students are slightly more likely to pass their elementary exam on the first try. And 55% of first-time test-takers of color from the University of Colorado Boulder pass, a rate higher than the state average. Candidates of color from two alternative certification programs, the Public Education Business Coalition or PEBC and Relay Denver, also pass at rates above the state average.

The report recommends that teacher preparation programs ensure they cover the material candidates will need to know to do well on exams and that testing companies review the exams for evidence of bias, among other changes. Researchers with the council defended the value of rigorous licensure exams, pointing to a body of research that finds teachers who do well on their exams are rated more effective in the classroom years later. NCTQ gave Colorado high marks for using a test that measures multiple subject areas and requiring teachers to meet the recommended thresholds to pass.

Tyler Hanson, who recently completed the PEBC teacher residency program in early childhood education, failed his first attempt at that licensure exam. He needed that credential just to work in the classroom as part of the residency program, which trains teachers through a mix of classes and hands-on experience with a mentor teacher. He had just quit his finance job to switch to teaching and rushed through the test prep. He described the test, which covers child development and age-appropriate teaching among other subjects, as very relevant to his new profession. 

But he also said the test was harder — with more ambiguous questions that seemed to have more than one valid answer — than most other tests he’s taken, including his CPA exam.

With more intensive study and a better test-taking strategy, he passed on his second try. 

As part of Teach Colorado, a collaborative effort to grow the state’s teacher workforce, PEBC now offers its teacher-residents a month of tutoring and coaching, as well as financial assistance to cover test fees. Perez-Carrillo believes that kind of support system would have helped her, and that if teaching were held in higher regard, it would be more common.

Of the first group of PEBC residents to receive this extra help, all passed on their first attempt.

“There are things we can do as a field to help more candidates pass these exams and go on to be the excellent teachers our students need,” said Jessamyn Lockhart, PEBC’s senior director of residency.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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