WASHINGTON — When Marquita Thomas-Brown first joined Delaware State University as coordinator for the Praxis teacher license exam in 2008, hardly any students took the university up on its free preparation course. Perhaps not coincidentally, hardly any students passed the exam.
But since making the course mandatory for freshmen, the number of students who pass the Praxis has shown mark improvement; from four students in 2008 to 24 during the last count, says Thomas-Brown.
DSU’s early intervention approach is actually one of many recommendations made in a new report released Wednesday that deals with ways to help more prospective teachers from diverse groups pass the teacher license exams.
The report, “Toward Increasing Teacher Diversity: Targeting Support and Intervention for Teacher Licensure Candidates,” was prepared by the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Services, the creator of the Praxis tests.
Speaking Wednesday at a forum on the report, Thomas-Brown said it was encouraging to know that she had discovered on her own what the ETS reports says is an effective way to improve preparedness for the exam.
“I think that this is just phenomenal,” she said of the report’s recommendation. “When I read this I was blown away because it made me feel good as a Praxis coordinator in knowing that I’m on the right track.”
Besides recommendations, the ETS report released a racial and ethnic breakdown of how teaching candidates from recent years have performed on various components of the Praxis, which is the most widely used teacher license exam in the nation.
Given the exclusionary nature of the exams, in many ways, the report helps explain why America’s teachers are far from reflecting the diversity of the nation’s students.
Among other things, the report found that the gap between African-American and White test takers on the Praxis I test in mathematics, reading and writing was 41.4, 40.8 and 35.3 percent, respectively. The gaps between Hispanics and White test takers on the same tests were 21, 16.8 and 16.5 percent, respectively. For Asian test takers those gaps were 7, 24.3 and 16.3 percent, respectively; and for Native Americans the gaps were 18.7. 16.4 and 22.2 percent, respectively.
The report also busted a myth that non-White subgroups struggle more with essay questions than with multiple-choice questions.
“The data show that this is not universally the case and that an intervention program based solely on that belief would miss the need to address other, sometimes larger, opportunities for improvement,” says the report.
The report also found that Black students tend to take the Praxis exams more in their later years in college, whereas White students tend to mostly take the Praxis during the first two years of college.
For instance, 24.1 percent of test takers during their freshman year were White, whereas only 7.8 percent of freshman test takers were Black. During sophomore year, 28.3 percent of test takers were White and 15.9 percent were Black. But during junior and senior year, the percentage of Black test takers outstrips those who are White, 17.7 to 15.5 and 14.4 to 9.1, respectively.
Similarly, more African-American students take the Praxis after they’ve earned their Bachelor’s degrees than do White students, 18.9 to 10.2 percent, the report found.
“Students who express an interest in teaching may benefit from taking the Praxis I tests earlier in their college careers rather than waiting,” the report states. “If they need intervention to build their academic skills, it should be started as early in their careers as possible.”
Thomas-Brown said many African-American students simply lack information about the Praxis and its importance to their teaching careers. She said she often deals with juniors and seniors who say they’ve never even heard of the Praxis.
“They’re like, ‘No one ever told me I had to take Praxis I and II,’ so there’s a gap that needs to be closed,” Thomas-Brown says.
Other students, she says, have indicated in surveys that they didn’t have the time to take the Praxis prep course or didn’t see the value in it because there’s no grade or credit for the course. She says the university is considering offering grades or credit for the course, but getting buy-in from faculty has been a challenge.
“Our faculty are just set in their ways,” says Thomas-Brown. But the consequences of not preparing students for the Praxis is steering many away from the field of education, sometimes simply because students fail one of the three Praxis I exams by just one or two points. As a result, “education majors are going to social work or psychology,” she says.
National Education Association officials say there is some value to debating the merits and validity of the Praxis and other teacher licensing exams. However, with a current political environment that emphasized student achievement, they say it would be more effective to help Praxis takers pass the exam rather than scrap the test altogether.
” We’ve had a lot of discussions about this balance between teacher quality and teacher diversity,” says Segun Eubanks, director of Teacher Quality at the National Education Association. “I don’t believe you can have a qualified workforce without it being diverse. But you don’t increase diversity by lowering standards. You increase diversity by helping candidates meet high standards.”
At the same time, Eubanks concedes, there is work to be done to ensure that the tests are not culturally biased.
“We don’t have any opposition to modifying the test. We’ve been pushing hard about making sure that faculty of color and faculty from HBCUs are more involved in the test preparation, development, revising what the tests are measuring, how they’re measuring it and making improvements to the test,” he says
Along those lines, ETS has been conducting HBCU, HSI and Tribal College Invitational Conferences to examine issues related to test development, scoring, teacher effectiveness and closing achievement gaps. The last one was held in January.
“It gives people a way to become involved in how to improve processes or develop questions themselves,” says Katherine Bassett, director of Educator Relations Group at ETS.