Tearing down the testing barrier to teaching

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Sometimes teachers are forced to jump through hoops just to keep their jobs. That is the case for dozens of members of the Washington Teachers’ Union, who gathered together with AFT trainers on Veterans Day weekend to study up for the Praxis teacher certification test.

WTU Praxis Boot Camp

These educators, many of whom have been successful at their careers for more than a decade, may lose their jobs due to a requirement that they pass the Praxis—a test more typically required of new teachers and educators entering the district for the first time. And passing the test is no walk in the park: Despite years of experience, every boot camp participant had failed the test at some point, some of them multiple times, and many of them by only one or two points.

That’s where the AFT and WTU come in. The all-day Praxis Boot Camp featured multiple sessions on different aspects of the test, taught by trainers who offered test-taking strategies  and background information on how the test is crafted. There were also presentations from Educational Testing Service staff—the people who actually write and score the test questions.

The Praxis is a notorious hurdle for educators—so much so that some jurisdictions have waived the requirement. In fact, two school districts in the D.C. suburbs—in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties—do not require practicing teachers to pass it, and some D.C. teachers, threatened by job loss in the city, have resorted to taking lower-paying jobs there.

The AFT is tackling this issue on two fronts: by helping individuals pass the existing test, and by working closely with ETS to dig into why the Praxis has become such an impediment to growing and maintaining a strong and diverse teacher workforce.

One common complaint is that test-takers must pass exams on subject areas that have nothing to do with their assigned work: For example, early childhood educators and ​English language arts teachers must pass advanced-level math tests. Another problem is the deep racial disparity in Praxis success/fail rates. According to ETS statistics, 92 percent of white test-takers pass the reading portion of the test, compared with 68 percent of African American test-takers. Seventy-seven percent of white test-takers pass the writing potion, compared with 42 percent of black test-takers; and 72 percent of white test-takers pass the math portion, compared with 36 percent of black test-takers.

WTU Praxis Boot Camp

Hispanic test-takers passed at 80 percent, 58 percent and 56 percent on reading, writing and math, respectively. Asian and Native American test-takers also fell behind white test-takers.

“It’s a little racist,” said one test-taker during a boot camp break—and it was clear she was understating her point. All of the participants in the boot camp were people of color.

At an AFT diversity summit last spring, a group of education scholars, policy experts, AFT members and ETS staff drilled down to consider the problem in depth. They considered whether cultural bias is baked into the Praxis—which is created and scored primarily by white people. They discussed the fact that many people of color come from poorly resourced K-12 schools and are less prepared for test content and test-taking techniques. And they tackled one overarching question that kept surfacing: Does the test truly measure the skills a teacher needs to be successful?

Several boot camp participants said no. “It doesn’t measure if you’re a good teacher,” said one. “You can pass all the Praxis tests [there are several versions], and you’re still not a good teacher.”

“I’m an outstanding teacher,” said Doris Washington, who has a master’s degree and has been working in D.C. public schools for at least 13 years. “I’m highly effective, I have longevity, my classroom management is strong. But [without passing Praxis] I’m not considered highly qualified.”

With input from AFT leadership, members and others, ETS is working to improve. The company is recruiting more people of color to work on its test-making, test-scoring and test-review teams and participating in boot camps like this one. It has shifted the weight of the algebra portion of the test from 50 percent to 32 percent of the final test score, and it is now providing mathematical formulas so that test-takers do not have to commit them to memory.

Meanwhile, Washington educators are not only worried about their jobs, they’re worried about their students, who rely on them for consistency and high-quality teaching. Children of color in particular benefit from having role models who look like them, who share their cultural background, to help them connect and engage with their academic work. If the Praxis continues to hold back these teachers, everybody loses.

[Virginia Myers/photos courtesy of WTU]