National education advocate says state is falling short but local experts tell a different story
Kate Walsh, the National Council on Teacher Quality  (NCTQ) has a reputation for being provocative.
She lived up to that billing this month during a visit to North Carolina to discuss strategies for improving college and university teacher prep programs.
In North Carolina, there are 52 such programs  approved by the State Board of Education (SBE). They include private and public universities and colleges as well as smaller programs created by school districts and nonprofits to feed the teacher pipeline.
A debate over pass rates on teacher licensure exams
One of the more controversial points Walsh made during her appearance before the SBE had to do with minority teacher candidates who have, according to Walsh, performed poorly on teacher licensure exams.
Walsh contends states don’t publish “actual” passing rates on licensure exams because of a “disproportionate poor performance” by minorities on the tests.
She said educator preparation programs (EPPs) fear publishing “actual” results would harm efforts to add more minorities to the teacher pipeline.
“So, institutions which accept a lot of minority candidates will naturally want to come in here and give you an earful about how any proposal to publish pass rates is in fact undermining the importance of putting a diverse teacher-force in the classroom,” Walsh told the SBE.
Data shared by Walsh  show that only 38 percent of Black candidates and 57 percent of Latinx candidates pass all four subjects on the most commonly required tests for elementary school teachers. Meanwhile, white candidates have a 75 percent pass rate.
The licensure exams are designed to ensure aspiring teachers have a good grasp of math, English language arts, science and social studies.
Walsh’s comments come amid a major push to put more minority teachers in classrooms. Studies provide strong evidence  that Black students do better on state tests, have fewer absences and suspensions and are more likely to be assigned to gifted programs when they have a Black teacher.
To address cultural and racial concerns around the publishing of passing rates, Walsh suggested states compare, for example, schools that accept a lot of first-generation college students with similar schools.
Marion Gillis-Olion, dean of the College of Education at Fayetteville State University , has watched minority students struggle on teacher licensure exams for more than three decades.
Gillis-Olion said those struggles begin long before teacher candidates reach college.
“High schools that are in low-income areas, rural areas and urban areas where teachers don’t have longevity in the school and sometimes don’t even have licenses to teach, they are on temporary licenses, emergency permits, the level of education that our low-income, rural, minority students bring to the EPP is quite different,” Gillis-Olion said.
SBE member James Ford wondered whether the exams are culturally biased, noting that second-and third-generation minority students also struggle to pass them.
“If we’re specifically talking about students of color who may be second-or third-generation college-goers but may still struggle with these
tests, isn’t the issue the testing instrument … might there be some cultural nuances there? How do you control for that?”
Walsh said licensure exams are checked for biases because they must be defensible in court.
“Very few people who are accusing the tests of being cultural biased have reviewed the test to assess whether they are in fact culturally biased,” Walsh said.
She said teacher licensure exams confirm what other tests tell us – that nationally, schools aren’t doing a good job of educating Black and brown students.
“This is not only misleading to state boards, which are approving programs, it’s misleading to future teachers because I as a future teacher don’t know where to shop and no one is telling me if I pick school “A” I’ll have an 80 percent chance at becoming a teacher and if I pick school “B,” I only have a 40 percent chance, a huge, huge difference.”
Pushback from NC
Tom Tomberlin, North Carolina’s Director of School Research, Data and Reporting, disagreed with Walsh’s assessment of North Carolina.
“Everyone who attempts the test is being counted,” Tomberlin said.
He explained that North Carolina publishes performance reports on approved EPPs that show the percentage of teacher candidates who took and passed state licensure exams.
When asked in a phone interview to explain her statement about North Carolina not publishing actual passing rates, Walsh referred Policy Watch to Hannah Putnam, director of research at NCQT.
Here’s what Putnam said: “North Carolina does have the teach prep report cards, but when we were looking at this for the elementary content data burst we released in April, we couldn’t get any verification from the state on how they were defining which students are included in the pass rate.”
Michael Maher, assistant dean for professional education and accreditation at the N.C. State College of Education, also disagreed with Walsh’s assessment that North Carolina doesn’t publish actual passing rates.
“This whole notion of coming into North Carolina and telling us what we do and do not do and not really looking at our data before you come here seems almost disrespectful,” Maher said.
NCQT contends not a single state publishes comprehensive pass rate data, which would include first time pass rates and final pass rates broken down by program and teacher demographics.
The organization also takes issue with how many states define a program “completer” and how those completers are counted when compiling passing rates.
Some schools, for example, define program completers as teacher candidates who have finished program requirements and passed licensure exams. By only counting completers, schools can report high passage rates.
Tomberlin noted that passing rates in North Carolina will be tracked differently moving forward because teacher candidates now have three years to pass licensure exams.
“In order for us to have an accurate picture of how EPPs are doing, we’re going to have to do a cohort average, a three year average,” Tomberlin said.
The recent passage and enactment of House Bill 107  puts in place accountability standards for EPPs. Programs that don’t meet standards can receive a warning, probation or have their state approval revoked.
EPP profiles will be placed on the UNC Educator Quality Dashboard  to make them more accessible.
“That dashboard is going to include some of that data [Walsh calls for], Maher said. “We’re working on even greater transparency, at least on that level.”
North Carolina does not currently publish first-time pass rates, final pass rates on teacher licensure exams or break them down by demographics – data that NCQT contends provide a more accurate picture of how well EPPs are preparing teachers.
That will also change, however, under HB 107, which will require the state to compile more of that data.
Walsh said states receive lots of pressure to not publish or publicize licensure passing rates from EPPs. Many EPPs claim they don’t pay attention to standardized test outcomes, she said.
“Now, think about that, these are programs that take tuition dollars and they take two or three years of someone’s time and they say it is not our obligation to make sure you are successful on the state test,” Walsh said. “That is not found in other professions. If you look at nursing, the first time pass rate for nursing is 85 percent. The first time pass rate for teaching on the most popular test in the country that’s found in 23 states in the elementary level is 46 percent and nobody cares, nobody knows, nobody knows what programs are doing a good job, nobody has an idea.”
Maher warned that licensure pass rates are only one piece of the puzzle when grading EPPs or measuring teacher quality.
“We don’t put too much emphasis on a licensure pass rate because we don’t think it necessarily a sole indicator of teacher quality,” said Maher. “I would disagree with Ms. Walsh, particularly around the idea of teacher preparation, teacher preparation quality and how we evaluate the quality of a program.”
He said NCQT is focused on “input measures” such as Praxis exam scores and SATs, ACT scores and what you can find on a program syllabus.
“We’re much more interested in performance data and outcome data, so we look at things like licensure pass rates, for example, surveys from employers, teacher ratings … K-12 student data,” Maher said. “NCQT really isn’t interested in those kinds of outcome measures.’
Walsh, however, had more advice for North Carolina.
She urged SBE members to be sure they know what’s on licensure exams and that they accomplish what the board intends them to.
“If you look at the test and find that the content on them is largely irrelevant to the job of teaching, if you look on them and they look like a game of Trivial Pursuit, then you go back to your testing publisher and say this isn’t measuring what’s important,” Walsh said.
She applauded the decision by the state’s Republican-led General Assembly to stop paying teachers extra for master’s degrees.
“We all think having teachers get more education is a wonderful idea, but the way the system works, you try to get the fastest cheapest degree to earn a higher salary” Walsh said. “What has resulted from that kind of perverse system is the degrees aren’t adding value in the classroom.”