State News

A standardized test is keeping potential teachers out of the workforce, Vermont to make it optional

By Peter D’Auria/VTDigger

“Nima is planning a vacation. The total cost of his vacation, c, in dollars, for n nights of stay at a hotel can be estimated by the equation c = 375n + 1,700. If Nima can spend no more than 4,000 dollars on his vacation, what is the greatest number of nights he can stay at the hotel?”

If you find problems like this difficult, you’re not alone. That’s a sample test question from the Praxis Core, a standardized test for prospective K-12 teachers. The question comes from a practice test posted online by the educational nonprofit Khan Academy.

The Praxis is a standardized test that prospective teachers in Vermont and other states are required to pass, intended to measure teachers’ proficiency in basic academic subjects.

But state and local education officials say that many aspiring teachers have struggled to pass it — creating a hurdle to the profession that can keep educators out of the workforce.

Now, Vermont officials hope to get rid of that requirement.

Officials have been considering changes in the Praxis test requirement since before Covid-19. But amid a nationwide teacher shortage, the issue “was something that we paid closer attention to during the pandemic, because the challenges in staffing just really increased,” said Amy Minor, the chair of the Vermont Standards Board for Professional Educators.

She noted that many prospective teachers were falling short of the required test scores by only a couple of points.

‘It’s a real challenge’

To become a licensed teacher in Vermont — in any grade or subject area — applicants must receive a passing grade on the Praxis Core test.

Praxis tests “measure academic skills in reading, writing and mathematics deemed by teacher educators to be essential for all candidates preparing to be teachers, no matter what content area or grade-level they aspire to teach,” according to the website of Praxis’ publisher, Educational Testing Services. The standardized testing giant also administers the Graduate Record Exams, required for admission to many graduate schools, and TOEFL tests that gauge English-language proficiency.

Vermonters who are not licensed to teach can be granted temporary licenses, with the goal of passing the Praxis test while they teach.

But most temporary licenses are valid for only up to three years, after which time they cannot be renewed. If candidates do not pass the Praxis test within that period, they are ineligible to become a teacher.

“It’s a real challenge,” said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of Slate Valley Unified School District, of prospective teachers struggling to pass the exam. “I’d say we probably have about 10 teachers in that boat right now.”

The Praxis test includes questions in three areas: math, reading and writing.

To teach in specific subject areas or grade levels, applicants may be required to take additional Praxis tests. Current rules allow state officials to waive the test in specific circumstances. But that, too, can be a burden.

For many prospective teachers, those tests are difficult. And candidates whose first language is not English also struggle with the reading and writing sections.

‘An element of bias’

The total passing rate for all Praxis tests taken in Vermont is approximately 70%, according to an Agency of Education spokesperson. That figure, however, does not take into account people taking the test multiple times, so the real passing rate is likely higher.

Don Tinney, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, said standardized tests contain “an element of bias.”

Proposed changes in state rules would allow applicants to “demonstrate competency with basic skills through a method determined by the Standards Board.” Relevant coursework, or certain grades could be substituted.

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