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.

As part of Arizona's multipronged push to improve literacy instruction, all "teachers who provide English language arts instruction to students in Kindergarten through grade five are required to obtain a Literacy K-5 endorsement by August 1, 2028," which requires passing the Foundations of Reading exam. To support teachers to complete the requirement and reduce the costs, in addition to providing free training, the state is providing vouchers for one test attempt to all Arizona residents who are either current teachers or currently enrolled in teacher prep programs. All test takers are able to receive one voucher. The state received ongoing funding from the legislature and was able to purchase vouchers for later use, enabling the state to use the funding to cover future test taker needs, which is helpful because teachers have several years to take and pass the test. Also, the state worked with its testing company, Pearson, to create a technological solution to make the vouchers easy to use: they are applied automatically for any first-time test taker whose residence has an Arizona zip code.

Last 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.

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.

In June 2023, North Carolina announced an initiative to help cover the cost of licensure test fees. Aspiring and current teachers (since the state allows teachers to take several years to pass a licensure test) can create an account with TeachNC, a "teacher recruitment resource within the [NC] Department of Public Instruction" to apply for up to $500 that can be applied toward test prep support from a designated test prep provider, vouchers for Praxis exams, and reimbursements for the cost of other tests (like Foundations of Reading or the edTPA). This program, funded with a $3 million grant from the federal Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund, also provides access to preparation materials for licensure tests.

Oregon offers a reimbursement program to help with licensure test fees specifically as a means to promote educator diversity. Educators' "diversity" is identified based on race or ethnicity or first language. Eligible expenses include licensure test fees as well as license application fees, fingerprinting costs, tuition for tutoring or remedial coursework, and mileage costs for reaching a testing center. The program began in July 2020 and is scheduled to continue for at least three years. Since the program's inception, the agency has processed approximately 1,200 applications and disbursed over $250,000 in support, and the state's Teacher Standards and Practices Commission reports that many more applications have been received in the last few months.

For several years, Virginia has offered a grant for awards of up to $10,000 to entities such as school districts, teacher prep programs in public higher education institutions, and nonprofit organizations, for up to a total of $50,000 for services including subsidizing test fees as well as the cost of tutoring for provisionally licensed teachers of color who are seeking full licensure in the state. While the program did not run in the 2022-23 school year, it is funded for the 2023-24 school year. Although there's no available data on how many teachers used this grant, in the last several years, between seven and ten school districts received funds through this grant.

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.

Updated 9/22/2023 to include Arizona, North Carolina, and Virginia.