TQB: Teacher Quality Bulletin

Setting sights lower: States back away from elementary teacher licensure tests

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There is ample research that knowing the content you'll teach is a key element of being an effective teacher.504 In spite of this, many states are moving to eliminate existing measures of content knowledge for aspiring teachers or create alternatives, citing concerns around possible teacher shortages.

Content licensure tests are an important element in understanding a teacher candidate's knowledge and skills; and most research demonstrates that content licensure tests are predictive of teacher candidates' impact on their students. As states consider new alternatives to these tests or eliminate the tests altogether, they run the significant risk that these changes will mean more teachers enter the classroom without the knowledge they need to be successful. Below, we lay out changes states made to their content test requirements so far this year, and consider the risks and challenges.510

Last month, Iowa announced that it would scrap its licensure content test requirements altogether. New Mexico also recently announced that it would no longer require its licensure tests except for reading and join other states (Maine, Montana, and Wisconsin) that allow elementary teacher candidates to instead submit a portfolio for review (of note, the New Mexico changes, set to take effect on July 1st of 2022, have not yet been reflected on the state's website).

In May 2022, Montana added the above-mentioned option of completing a portfolio instead of taking a content licensure test. However, the portfolio (completed during student teaching) is not content-specific. Teacher candidates in Montana can now also skip the test with a 3.0 GPA or above in their teacher preparation coursework.

Other states are opting to keep licensure tests but establish new flexibilities and alternatives for candidates who do not pass tests. Just this month, Alabama announced new flexibilities that will allow teachers who just barely fail their content licensure exams (this change will not apply to the Foundations of Reading exam) to provide other evidence of their qualification. If a candidate comes within one standard error measure of a passing score, they will be able to pass with proof of a 2.75 GPA in their subject area, along with a passing score on the edTPA. If the candidate cannot meet the 2.75 GPA requirement, they are still eligible to earn a temporary certificate, so long as they have graduated from an in-state college or university and work toward either a passing licensure test score or 100 hours of state-approved professional development.

The Alabama law also allows districts with critical staffing shortages to apply for a waiver that would grant further flexibilities. If granted, a district may hire candidates scoring as many as two standard error measures below passing, so long as they have at least a 2.5 GPA in their subject area and pass the edTPA. Candidates approved under this waiver must be assigned a "highly effective mentor" during the time they hold the temporary certificate.

Similarly, Delaware passed a temporary (one-year) act to allow teachers who are within two standard errors of measure of a passing score on content licensure tests to qualify for a standard teaching certificate, so long as they meet certain other qualifications. Candidates for this flexibility will need to have either a GPA of 3.5 or higher or a GPA between 3.0 - 3.49 and "demonstrated competency through micro-credentialing, successful completion of a residency, or passing scores on performance assessments." This "alternative measure" option is not available for aspiring special education teachers or for other specialist certifications.

Missouri passed a similar flexibility for those who come in below a passing score (one standard error measure) on their content licensure exams, so long as they have a 3.0 in their coursework and student teaching experiences. Colorado's state legislature directed the state to provide a new option for up to a thousand candidates to substitute either a portfolio or sufficiently high grades (a specific definition to be determined) in lieu of taking the state test, although agencies are still working out the specific requirements.

As of July, West Virginia has now joined other states (such as Arizona, California, Hawaii, Oregon, and Utah) that waive the elementary content licensure test requirement for teacher candidates who have a degree or major in their content area. Utah has recently added exemptions from content test requirements for candidates for initial elementary teacher licensure511 who have completed college coursework in the relevant subject area, though elementary teachers will still need to pass all the content tests within three years of entering the classroom in order to qualify for a full professional license.

In a more measured approach, New Jersey just finalized a five-year pilot that will allow districts to apply to the state for approval to hire new teachers (under limited licenses) with a waiver for either the minimum content test score or GPA requirements.

Moving Forward

As states weigh changes to licensure content tests, they should begin by answering the following questions:

What specific problem are we trying to address? How narrowly targeted is the solution to the problem? States commonly cite the need to recruit more teachers as the reason for these rollbacks of required licensure tests. However, teacher shortages are often not across-the-board but are concentrated in specific subjects, such as STEM and special education, and in certain locales such as rural schools—all of which require tailored solutions to fix.

If, for instance, a state is struggling with a shortage of special education teachers, it need not lower the bar for entry for all elementary teachers by dropping elementary content tests. Instead, the state could consider a solution directly targeted to special educators, like a targeted pay bump.

States should also consider if they are really looking to the right point in the teacher pipeline. For example, could they be doing more to retain their current workforce, leaving fewer open roles? In that case, policymakers would do well to look at evidence-based retention strategies like more intensive early support for new teachers; targeted compensation; and improved working conditions.

Policymakers should further estimate the likely effect of the policy change on both the teacher workforce and on student outcomes. Missouri, for instance, did the first part of this calculation, sharing with reporters that according to internal analysis, their new rule changing the qualification for a passing test score will impact 550 current teacher candidates, over 80% of whom are working towards certification in one of the state's top 15 shortage areas. (This type of analysis is important, but also raises the question of why states would lower requirements for aspiring teachers who are not going into these shortage areas.)

Are we replacing licensure tests with quality measures? Standardized tests are designed to be reliable over time, comparable across all test takers in the state, time and cost-efficient, comprehensive in their coverage of content and skills, aligned with the expectations for the state's teachers, and rigorously vetted for bias. Any alternatives should be held to the same expectations, but most approaches fall short.

A portfolio, for instance, might be able to capture something meaningful about a prospective teacher's skill in writing strong lesson plans, or deep understanding of a specific concept—both important. But the same portfolio can't comprehensively and reliably measure the depth and breadth of content needed to be sure you are ready to teach secondary mathematics. Grades are a similarly imperfect measure of content knowledge—there is little evidence to date that grades in teacher preparation coursework are predictive of later teaching performance (although there is some evidence that grades in earlier coursework may be moderately predictive), and there is significant evidence of widespread grade inflation across preparation programs.

For these reasons, these alternatives may ultimately be poor substitutes for licensure tests.

Even when policymakers keep licensure tests in place, when they lower the passing score, they risk undermining the efficacy of those tests. Cut scores, which are set by a team of experts and practitioners (usually including teachers), represent the minimum that teachers need to know to be qualified as a beginning teacher.506 Anything lower than the recommended cut score risks assigning students to new teachers who do not fully understand the subjects they'll be expected to teach; to say nothing of giving prospective teachers and their prospective employers misleading messages about their readiness.

How will this impact students and teachers? It is critical that any state changing requirements for entering the classroom evaluate the impact of these changes. At minimum, they should know:

  • Has this policy directly contributed to fewer shortages?
  • Where are these new teachers assigned to teach?
  • What is the impact of changed requirements on student achievement?
  • What is the impact on teacher retention?
  • What effect did this change have on students of color and students living in poverty, who are most likely to be assigned to novice teachers and less effective teachers?

States have largely opted not to require evaluations of new licensure flexibilities that would answer these important questions. A few exceptions include New Jersey, which has included a required evaluation as part of its five-year pilot of licensure test alternatives, and Massachusetts, which is conducting evaluations of both outcomes from emergency licenses issued during the pandemic, and the impact of piloted alternatives to its licensure test system.

Correction: This piece was updated August 4, 2022 to include the May 2022 exemptions to Montana's content licensure test requirement.