Reading licensure test pass rates recommendations

See all posts
Building a path together

There's clear evidence about the most efficient, effective way to teach young children to read. State education agencies, teacher prep programs, and testing companies have a role to play in ensuring that what's expected in teacher prep coursework and what's assessed on licensure tests aligns with scientifically based reading instruction.

Teacher prep programs:

  1. Require coursework to prepare teachers to provide explicit, systematic instruction in the components of reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. 

    Teacher prep programs should require coursework that aligns with settled science on how to effectively and efficiently teach reading. 885 Coursework should not present content that contradicts research-based practices (e.g., three-cueing). Coursework should also specifically address issues related to struggling readers, English language learners, and students who speak English language variations other than mainstream English. 

    Reading coursework should address the five fundamental components of reading (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) and their use in teaching reading (including assessing students' reading ability), through both reading materials that accurately present the underlying science behind each component and the use of the component, and sufficient instructional time for each component. The coursework should require teacher candidates to demonstrate knowledge of, and to practice, reading instruction reflecting each of the five essential components of reading as well as their application to instructing and assessing all students. NCTQ's past analysis has found that phonemic awareness is most frequently overlooked, so programs should consider starting with this component, since phonemic awareness lays the critical foundation for students learning how to read. 
  2. Review and act on licensure test pass rate data to monitor program effectiveness and to inform improvements. 

    Teacher preparation programs should review all available pass rate information for their candidates. If the prep program has access to a data management system, staff should be trained to query the data to inform decisions (e.g., to identify whether candidates in one section of a course outperform others, or to see if there's a specific skill or component with which candidates tend to struggle). Testing companies generally offer training or instructions on how to use their data management systems, and the state education agency may be able to help organize training for multiple prep programs. 

    Programs should review pass rate data for teacher candidates, overall and by demographic groups, to identify areas for growth and areas of strength. For licensure tests that provide subscores in specific content areas, programs can use disaggregated data to monitor course requirements and course effectiveness. Key stakeholders in the institution, including both teacher prep program leaders and reading faculty, should build a strategy to act on this data. Many protocols exist to support data-driven meetings, including ATLAS Looking at Data from National School Reform Faculty.
  3. Use diagnostic testing to identify candidates' strengths and weaknesses, and support them accordingly. 

    In addition to assessing candidates on their understanding of reading instruction in coursework, programs can use tests designed to replicate early reading licensure tests. Prep programs can explore the use of test prep materials available from their state's test provider (e.g., practice tests) to flag potential weaknesses early and guide students to courses or other supports. If practice tests are not available, prep programs could collaborate with testing companies to design low-cost, low-stakes assessments to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses, or they could use existing commercially available options. We do not recommend that prep programs use diagnostic testing in scientifically based reading instruction as a barrier to entry into programs, as this is content that candidates should learn during their programs. 
  4. Support candidates with financial need in successfully taking and retaking licensure tests. 

    Many aspiring teachers who fail their licensure test on the first attempt do not retake the test, meaning that they may not be eligible to earn a license. To support these candidates who may "walk away" from teaching (for elementary content tests, this "walk-away rate" was roughly 22% of all aspiring teachers who failed on the first attempt, and rose to 30% of aspiring teachers of color who failed on the first attempt), prep programs can provide additional support by offering vouchers or connecting candidates with vouchers available from their state. Preparation programs can also offer free test prep courses, additional tutoring, or opportunities to take and retake relevant courses, depending on candidates' specific needs.


  1. Use a valid and reliable early reading licensure test that measures the five components of reading instruction. Ensure the test does not include references to practices that are contrary to research-based practices. 

    States should require all elementary teachers seeking an initial teaching license to take a strong reading licensure test. This test should assess aspiring teachers' knowledge of the science of reading, addressing the five core components: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. For each component, the test should address the content of that component, its relationship to other aspects of reading, and instructional strategies to teach that component. For example, on the topic of phonemic awareness (which should also incorporate phonological awareness), the exam should address content such as rhyme, phonemes, and sounds; the importance of this component as a foundation for phonics instruction; and instructional strategies such as blending and segmenting phonemes.

    Licensure tests are designed to be valid, reliable, efficient, comparable across all test takers in the state, and comprehensive (addressing a broad range of the knowledge candidates need). Moreover, licensure tests are scrutinized for evidence of bias during their development and potentially after implementation. States seeking alternatives to licensure tests (e.g., portfolios) need to ensure that any alternative measure is held to the same high standards, including vetting for scoring reliability and lack of bias, and can serve the same purposes as effectively as a high-quality licensure test, including serving as a comprehensive measure of aspiring teachers' knowledge.

    To support aspiring teachers in meeting licensure test requirements, states can also provide funds to reduce the cost of taking the assessments, as numerous states have already done
  2. Set the minimum score needed to pass the licensure test at the score that has been recommended by reading practitioners and test development experts. 

    The minimum score needed to pass a licensure test should be determined by a formal standard-setting process in which practitioners and experts analyze test items and scoring for the purpose of deciding the minimum knowledge needed for the job. While the responsibility for establishing the passing scores rests ultimately with states, which act upon the recommendations from the standard-setting process, states should align minimum passing scores with the foundational psychometric work that is developed by expert reading practitioners. Lowering the recommended passing score so that higher numbers of candidates will pass not only harms the aspiring teacher—giving them a false sense of preparedness—but also harms the students whose teacher may lack an adequate understanding of reading instruction.

    States should make the recommended score (the raw score as well as the scale score)—and any rationale behind a decision to change the score—part of the public record. When states do not share whether its required cut score aligns with the recommended cut score, the public lacks insight into whether passing the test ensures teachers are minimally qualified. 

  3. Improve access to and use of assessment data. 

    Build a data system that helps answer important questions about the state's supply of teachers. States need data systems that can inform an understanding of the state's supply of teachers, as well as identify challenges in the pipeline. Better systems support states to examine data through multiple perspectives, providing insight on a range of important questions. This data offers the opportunity to pinpoint how to better support aspiring teachers and strengthen teacher quality overall. For examples of states that have accomplished this goal, see the case studies on Illinois, Florida, Massachusetts, and Texas. For states that are early in the process of developing such a system, their licensure test providers' data management systems are valuable resources. For more complex analyses such as customizing subgroups of test takers or combining pass rates across subtests to create composite pass rates, states can build additional data support into their contracts with their licensure test providers. One challenge many states face is that they do not currently link test takers to their teacher prep programs. To resolve this challenge, one approach is to implement an eligibility system for taking licensure tests, as states such as Georgia, Iowa, and Texas have done. In these states, candidates must have approval from their prep program before taking the licensure test. This approach does, however, limit who is able to take a licensure test.

    Another approach is to work with the existing data management system and require prep programs to provide rosters of candidates by program that can be matched to the testing records (e.g., the roster used for Title II data reporting). Linking test takers back to their prep programs allows states to see where programs are strong and where they need support. This can lay the groundwork for later improvements to the data system, such as tracking candidates into the classroom.

    Leverage the many uses of a strong data system. These data systems offer myriad benefits. For example, states with data on enrollment and completion of prep programs can use this information to vet the accuracy of Title II data submitted by teacher prep programs. States can use this data in program approval processes, publishing teacher prep program performance data in either program report cards or a dashboard, and tying that data to program accountability. Many states that start this work find that prep programs themselves are eager to have better data systems, as they use this information in the accreditation process and benefit from states' broader reach in gathering data. This data offers an opportunity to extend conversations about rooting policy and practice in localized data. 
  4. Make sure that the state's data needs are reflected in agreements made with licensure testing companies. 

    State licensing agencies should expect test publishers to support the state, teacher prep programs, and teacher candidates. States should require the following from their testing companies: 
i. The sound validity evidence that guided the design and development of the assessments. If the test publisher conducts standard-setting studies, results of the studies, whether multi-state or state-specific, should be provided to the state licensing agency and/or published. The testing companies should also provide verification that they reviewed the test for bias, as well as detailed information about the findings. (The state should make this information public.) 

ii. Regular reporting of psychometric and statistics results, as well as disaggregated summary results of licensure test outcomes to assist with ongoing monitoring and improvement initiatives. (The state should make this information public.) 

iii. The ability to apply prep programs' roster verification from Title II data to all pass rate data, making it possible to generate the pass rates for individual programs. 

iv. Access to a data management system with training, staff assistance, and the ability to build customized reports. A number of states seeking to supply NCTQ with the data for this report were charged by their test publisher due to the nature of their contractual arrangements.

Testing companies:

  1. Always provide first-attempt and best-attempt pass rate data and data on the number of attempts for all test takers at the institution level to state education agencies and preparation programs.

    Testing companies have access to much of the data that states and programs need on licensure tests, but this data is not always easily accessible. Compounding the problem, the state licensing agency or prep program may not have the technical expertise or capacity to access the data. Therefore, testing companies should automatically provide regular, detailed pass rate reports. 
  2. Work with the states to ensure that there are provisions in place to identify and mitigate bias in testing. 

    While testing companies already have a process in place to identify and mitigate bias, the education field has ongoing concerns about bias permeating licensure test results. Testing companies should communicate the process they currently have in place and engage diverse stakeholders in an ongoing process to determine what additional steps can be taken. Testing companies should publish results of their efforts to inform stakeholders and spur ongoing conversations. 

  3. Strengthen data collection to provide more accurate program-level data. 

    Testing companies already work with prep programs in many states to help programs "claim" candidates for Title II reporting requirements. A similar process can be used to connect all test takers back to their prep programs, allowing for more targeted reporting and simplifying the process for future Title II reports. The test publisher should work with higher education institutions to support disaggregation of results by programs housed within the institution. A large number of institutions offer undergraduate, graduate, and/or alternative prep programs. Without having a straightforward way to disaggregate the data, it is difficult for the state and the institution to identify strong programs or those that need additional support.