Teacher Certification Exams as Barriers to the Diversification of the Teacher Workforce

This is the second in a three-part MSIs Unplugged series on teacher education at federally-designated Minority Serving Institutions from the contributors to Teacher Education across Minority Serving Institutions: Programs Policies, and Social Justice, edited by Emery Petchauer and Lynnette Mawhinney. Authors will draw from their chapter to illustrate some of the important work happening in MSI teacher education programs. We hope this series helps move MSI teacher education into the view of both education scholars and the general public.

This is the time of year when the emails and phone calls from worried teacher candidates start to ratchet up at our minority serving institutions. Candidates are concerned about the possibility they will not pass all of the exams or be certified in time to take a full-time teaching job come the fall. Last year, a teacher candidate, Maria, approached us about her persistent failure on one of the state-required content exams for teacher certification. It was her third time taking it and despite the time she spent studying and reviewing, a few points on the exam continued to elude her. Is this an indicator that this teacher candidate is not going be effective in the classroom?

Teacher certification exams are designed, in theory, to prevent ill-equipped teachers from entering our public school classrooms. The research suggests, however, that most certification exams are poor measures of a teacher’s ability to effectively teach the diversity of children in classrooms or of a teacher’s readiness to teach. Performance assessments, like the edTPA, are theoretically better indicators of these capacities, but the research is still emerging. Maria is a creative and purposeful teacher, with deep content knowledge, who is invested in working in urban schools and teaching all students effectively. She knows her students and we can attest that her lessons were consistently designed with each and every one of them in mind. It is possible that these paper-and-pencil exams might keep her from the classroom. Moreover, while she was less concerned about the edTPA, Maria mentioned to us that she faced the choice between paying her electricity bill and paying the $300 required to submit her edTPA.

As faculty at minority serving institutions, who are invested in the diversification of the teacher workforce, we consider supporting our teacher candidates through the hurdles of teacher certification exams as critical to our work. Our teacher candidate populations speak a variety of languages other than English; identify with different racial, ethnic, and religious groups that are highly underrepresented in the teacher workforce; and describe themselves as low- or working-class. Cost is a huge barrier to certification for many of these candidates who, like Maria, find the approximately $800 fee to complete all of the required exams daunting and, sometimes, impossible.

Our institutions have worked to find vouchers to support initial costs, and also to create zero-cost, faculty-led workshops designed to prepare candidates for the content and structure of the exams to reduce the need for retakes. Many of our candidates’ K-12 educations poorly prepared them for college-level work and few received strong feedback on their reading and writing. Moreover, most teacher certification exams are no longer pencil-and-paper tests, creating a need for candidates—whose K-12 educations integrated little technology—to practice reading and writing responses on a computer.Thus, within these workshops, candidates are supported in increasing their efficiency as readers and writers; familiarity with a wide variety of genres and content;and knowledge of techniques for taking computer-based exams.

Our teacher candidates often describe extreme fear and anxiety of the unknown at testing centers where they will take these computer-based exams. Rarely are they aware of the ways in which these actual testing situations, beliefs about self-efficacy, and their mindset about test-taking, shape their success. We have found that providing some familiarity with the situation within courses and the workshops (e.g., what identification will be required; the process for getting a new whiteboard on which to write; going to use the restroom) alleviates much of this anxiety. For the edTPA, we have found that it is also important that candidates feel they have permission to request the necessary time and assistance to complete the lesson sequence in classrooms. Mobilizing faculty members and university supervisors to work with candidates on the language and approach for these discussions with their cooperating teachers has made a significant difference in their confidence to advocate for themselves.

These exams are daunting for many of our candidates, but we have seen them thrive with targeted preparation that addresses gaps in their skills, knowledge, familiarity, and concerns. Finding avenues to seek out vouchers, ensuring candidates are well-prepared for the exams, and preparing them for the realities of testing centers, can help qualified and talented individuals from being kept out of the profession. However, supporting teacher candidates’ success on these exams does not diminish the responsibilities we, as teacher educators, have to be guardians of the profession. Our commitments to access, excellence, and the diversification of the teacher workforce drive our work, and this includes being mindful that not all individuals are appropriate for the profession despite their ability to pass certification exams.

Joni Kolman is an Assistant Professor of Teaching and Learning in the School of Education at California State University San Marcos; from 2013-2016 she served as an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at City College of New York, CUNY. Her research and teaching focuses on teacher quality and is situated at the intersection of teacher education in/for high-need schools, K-12 inclusive classroom practice, and education policy.

Laura M. Gellert is Associate Professor of Mathematics Education/Childhood Education at City College (CUNY), where she also is the director of the childhood education program. Her work focuses on such topics as in-service teacher mentorship, inclusive education with mathematics education and integrated STEM education that meets the needs of underrepresented minority populations.

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