How states are making licensure tests free to aspiring teachers

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Nearly every state requires aspiring teachers to pass at least one licensure test to become a teacher of record. These tests come with testing fees that can quickly add up, especially if aspiring teachers fail on their first attempt and need to retake the test.

In some states, these costs have been used as justification for dropping this important guardrail to ensure that teachers have the knowledge they need to teach their students. Instead, several states have found creative, proactive solutions to address these costs, reducing the financial burden on aspiring teachers and setting out to increase diversity in their teacher pipeline.

This fall, Connecticut is introducing a new program offering educator preparation providers (EPPs) funds to help defray the cost of licensure tests. The program is supported by $2 million over the next two years as a result of a joint effort from the state's Governor and the Commissioner for the State Department of Education. These funds can be used for licensure test fees as well as background checks and fingerprinting costs. The money will be allocated among EPPs based on their enrollment, and EPPs will set the criteria for how they distribute the funds. To track the results of this program, EPPs will report on who receives the funds and how they're utilized. The Connecticut Department of Education is optimistic that this program will help reduce financial barriers for aspiring teachers, and looks forward to tracking the results at the end of Year 1 and adjusting the program as needed for Year 2.

Florida waived licensure test fees at the start of the pandemic. The state initially intended to waive exam fees for 120 days and granted test takers an extension if they were unable to take an exam because their local testing site location was closed. The program was so successful that it ultimately ended ahead of schedule (much to the dismay of many current and aspiring teachers, according to news reports), after meeting its goal for the number of registrants (50,000 people) in only 49 days. In fact, from April 1 to May 19, 2020 (the free exam period), more than 56,000 examinees signed up for over 110,000 tests, a drastic increase over typical exam registration. As a comparison, during the same date range in 2022, only 13,536 examinees signed up for about 16,500 tests. While the Florida teacher exams are generally fully funded by exam fees, the Florida Department of Education was able to fully cover the cost of these exams without payment from test takers during this time period.

Indiana offers aspiring teachers who are unsuccessful on their first attempt a free opportunity to retake a licensure test if they meet certain criteria. These criteria include: 1) having at least a 3.0 GPA (which the head of the teacher prep program can waive if they feel it is warranted), 2) missing the passing score by no more than three points, and 3) having only taken the test one time. This free retake option went into effect in 2021 when Indiana began contracting with its testing vendor, ETS. Since 2021, 13 test takers have used this waiver.

In Massachusetts, the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE) developed a voucher system to pay for licensure test fees. As part of the state's contract with its testing vendor, Pearson, the state receives a set number of vouchers (in this past contract, 2,000 vouchers) that it distributes across preparation programs over the life of the contract, which is typically about five years. Preparation programs (called "sponsoring organizations") receive a number of vouchers based on their size and past use of vouchers and can purchase more to partially or fully offset the testing fees for their students. Surprisingly, in years past, the data showed many of these vouchers have gone unused (up to 25% a few years ago). The state then encouraged sponsoring organizations to use their vouchers and redistributed unused ones.

The state also offers vouchers through several other means. During the pandemic, DESE purchased an additional 500 vouchers that could be used by emergency licensed educators who needed to take the state's licensure tests; teachers could apply for these vouchers directly through DESE. The state also offers vouchers through the INSPIRED Fellowship program: Fellows can provide access to vouchers to people in the community they are encouraging to pursue teaching, who are predominantly (but not exclusively) people of color. School districts can also apply for vouchers, for example for paraprofessionals who are seeking teacher certification. Massachusetts is currently evaluating the effect of its voucher program to determine what effect offering testing vouchers had on the teacher workforce.

New Jersey recently passed S2830, focused on licensure test pass rate data transparency and educator preparation program improvement, which includes three features to support aspiring teachers in paying licensure test fees. First, prep programs must inform teacher candidates about available waivers to help pay for licensure test fees. These include waivers made available by testing companies (generally based on test takers' financial need), and vouchers that are sometimes made available to teacher prep institutions to distribute to test takers. Second, prep programs must offer candidates the option of paying a separate "lab fee" that would be applied to the cost of licensure tests, allowing candidates to use financial aid to pay for these tests. Third, preparation programs must pay the cost of licensure tests for candidates preparing to teach in New Jersey in a shortage area. To date, there's no available data on how many candidates have benefited from these policies.

These states' efforts illustrate multiple approaches to help aspiring teachers to mitigate the cost burden of testing fees. Making this guardrail for the teaching profession more affordable is an important step in building a more equitable and diverse pipeline into the teaching profession, while ensuring that all students have teachers with a thorough understanding of the subjects they will teach.