School Talk

An Unfair Chance: Aspiring Elementary Teachers are Being Set Up to Fail Their Licensure Exams

It is a stop-you-in-your-tracks statistic: More than half of aspiring elementary school teachers fail their licensure exam. In fact, they fail at much higher rates than attorneys, doctors, and nuclear engineers on their respective licensure exams. And at a time when there is pressure to drastically increase the racial diversity of teachers, we can’t ignore the fact that Black and Brown teaching candidates are far less likely to pass than their white counterparts.

It is not uncommon to hear understandably frustrated people imply or even say outright that the pipeline is teeming with qualified candidates of color and schools just aren’t hiring them because they don’t value teacher diversity. But these teacher licensure exam passage rates add a wrinkle to that theory. The barriers to drawing more Black and Brown teachers into our classrooms are many, and include a broken K-12 system and lower matriculation numbers into secondary education. But now we know, thanks to the NCTQ report “A Fair Chance”, that even when elementary teaching candidates of color make it through their teacher preparation program in college and earn high grades, a majority of them find themselves unable to pass the required test to become officially certified.

And there is no indication that the prep programs that gladly take their money even care. The utter disregard that teacher preparation programs seem to have for their students is troubling—there is a disrespect and dishonesty baked into a system of higher education that hands out stellar grades as if they were candy and then stands by passively as scores of their students, who are disproportionately students of color— fail the certification exam, often more than once. And twenty-five percent of aspiring teachers who fail the exam give up on teaching altogether.

NCTQ president, Kate Walsh, offers a strong opinion in an interview with The 74 of the indifference she sees from these institutions of higher learning in the education space.


It’s kind of shocking that institutions do not feel the necessity of getting these candidates to succeed on the licensing tests.They take their money and they take their time — their college careers — and say, ‘You know, it’s a crapshoot whether you’re going to make it or not.’ Well, you just don’t see that in other professions.

How bad is it?

Sixty two percent of Black candidates, on average, do not qualify for a standard teaching licence because they do not pass the certification test. Hispanics fare better but still have a failure rate of 43 percent on the test. White teaching candidates have a failure rate of 25 percent. According to the report, “if the pass rate for black and Hispanic teacher candidates were comparable to white candidates, the diversity of the new teaching pool would increase by half.”

These numbers do not tell the whole story of the dearth of teachers of color in our elementary schools but they do provide a window into where the problem lies and how we can fix it.

And there is another important contextual backdrop to this conversation about the racial imbalance of the teaching profession—while children of color make up the majority of public K-12 students, 80 percent of their teachers are white.


Why Are These Failure Rates So High?

Teachers are simply not required to take the classes that align to the elementary standards. It seems almost too ridiculous to believe but it is really that simple—according to NCTQ, out of the 817 institutions they looked at, “only 3 percent of programs require courses to ensure foundational knowledge across science topics. Only a quarter of programs—27 percent—require sufficient coursework in mathematics. And history, geography and literature courses that align with the standards are mostly absent from many course requirements.” These findings are strengthened by the fact that in surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, two thirds of new teachers admit to not having a strong grasp of elementary subjects.

And the report includes testimony from aspiring teachers who failed the exam. Although their names are understandably withheld, their insight is vital in moving with urgency towards solutions.

Kate Walsh describes the problem quite succinctly here:


What do you think?

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