Across the country, policymakers are taking steps to relax their states’ certification requirements to get more teachers in the classroom and circumvent shortages.
Reviews by Education Week and the Education Commission of the States found about a dozen states that have recently amended—or are considering amending—teacher certification rules. Some are changing the criteria for licensure, others are expanding the qualifying score on state licensing tests, and some are dropping licensure tests altogether.
Those changes reflect a teacher pipeline in flux.
Administrators are bracing for what could be increasingly severe teacher shortages, particularly in hard-to-fill subject areas or locales. Last fall, nearly half of district and school leaders said they struggled to hire enough full-time teachers, according to a national EdWeek Research Center survey, and the problem could get worse.
Large percentages of teachers indicated plans to quit at the end of this past school year —although it’s not yet clear how many actually did—and the percentage of prospective teachers entering the profession has been steadily declining for years.
To pave the way for more people to enter the classroom, California legislators voted last year to allow teacher candidates to skip two different exams—the basic skills test and a subject matter exam—if they have taken approved college courses. And Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill in May that removes the requirement for teacher-candidates to pass a general education exam that covers communication, critical thinking, and computation. Lawmakers and state officials said the exam was redundant and presented a financial barrier to prospective teachers.
“There are many hurdles in our state that have continued to deepen the teacher shortage—[this exam] was one of those,” said Joy Hofmeister, the state superintendent of public instruction, in a statement. “This legislation will open doors to expand the teacher pool, ultimately making our schools better.”
Missouri’s state board of education voted earlier this month to grant teaching certificates to test-takers who score within one standard error of measurement, meaning they missed the qualifying score by a few questions. The education department says 550 teachers will benefit from this policy change—80 percent of whom are working toward being certified in one of the state’s top 15 shortage areas, according to local news station Fox2Now.
“The potential of thousands of Missouri students to have a well-prepared, appropriately certified teacher considerably outweighs the minimal risk that would come from alternating the qualifying score for all initial teacher-certification exams,” said Paul Katnik, the department’s assistant commissioner, according to Fox2Now.
In Alabama, state board of education members are also considering certifying prospective teachers who don’t reach the qualifying score on the Praxis. Nearly 1,200 teachers in the state scored one standard error measure below the passing score between September 2019 and August 2021.
The state’s education department has proposed that candidates who score within one standard error of measurement on the Praxis can still be certified if they have a higher GPA in their teacher-preparation program or if they complete 100 hours of state-approved training. Board members are expected to vote on the department’s proposal at their July 12 meeting.
Education department officials told board members earlier this month that while this solution is not a silver bullet for teacher shortages, it will offer districts some relief.
“We could literally open up dozens, maybe a couple of hundred teachers for this fall,” said State Superintendent Eric Mackey, according to AL.com.
Meanwhile, New Jersey has implemented a five-year pilot program where prospective teachers can still get limited certification if they either don’t meet the minimum GPA requirement, or earn the minimum passing score on a state licensing test of subject matter knowledge. Districts that want to hire these teachers must first apply to the state to enroll in the program.
Concerns about lowering the ‘standard of entry’
About a decade ago, states were strengthening entry requirements to the field. Now, some critics warn against lowering the bar at a time when effective teachers are needed more than ever to help make up learning that was disrupted during the pandemic.
“I don’t understand why our response to concern about shortages is to have a major policy reaction that lowers the standard of entry,” said Heather Peske, the president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based think tank that calls for more-rigorous teacher preparation. “Endorsing an option that asks less of teachers in terms of their content knowledge [means] you shift the burden onto students.”
And less-experienced teachers are more likely to teach in classrooms with more students of color and children from low-income families, she noted.
Peske said a time-limited pilot program, like the one in New Jersey, is a good compromise, since it allows time to research the impact of the changes and to determine the extent to which there is a teacher shortage in the state.
While certain subject areas and locations have always been perennial shortage areas, there’s no evidence of a mass teacher exodus since the start of the pandemic. And many states don’t collect or publish data that would help pinpoint the scope of the problem, Peske said.
“To combat teacher shortages, states need better data,” she said. “We can’t fix what we can’t see.”
Instead of “blunt” policy responses, Peske said she’d rather see more support given to aspiring teachers so they can pass the state exams. NCTQ has highlighted several teacher-preparation programs that have shored up support for test-takers and now see higher-than-average pass rates on licensing exams, including among candidates of color.
In general, aspiring teachers of color are more likely to fail licensing tests than white candidates.
Experts point to several reasons why that might be: Some of the questions on the tests might be culturally biased, candidates of color may have more test anxiety, the fees to take and retake exams can be prohibitive, and systemic educational inequities mean that candidates of color might be less prepared than white candidates.
Some experts have long called for states to scrap licensure exams in favor of performance-based assessments.