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The ‘Big Game’ on Saturday That Universities Overlook

There’s a “Big Game” this Saturday that won’t take place on a football field or be televised on national media. This Big Game involves universities nationwide, but it deals not with athletics but academics—teacher licensure to be precise. On Saturday, thousands of students across the country who want to become teachers will sit to take their teacher licensure tests, which is a requirement to receive admission into many teacher education programs. This is the most important four hours in any pre-service teacher’s undergraduate academic life. Just like a Big Game for college athletes, many students have placed this date on their calendars, trained diligently for it, and will have many supporters eagerly waiting for news of the results after it. For everyone, the pressure is on.

A growing body of research has indicated the startlingly large gaps in passing scores between pre-service teachers of Color and their White counterparts (see link below). From my conversations with students, I would also posit that this gap exists along age (traditional versus non-traditional age) and economic class. Faculty at minority serving institutions and smaller institutions are well aware of this lived reality. This awareness comes from either having a critical mass of students who experience such struggles, or, having a small and close-knit program that allows faculty members to be acquainted with the challenges that even only a few of their students may have. 

This issue, however, is not one that only small institutions deal with. These struggles exist at large research institutions too, but tenure-track and full-time faculty members can often be unaware of them. This became glaringly apparent to me a few weeks ago as I was on campus at a Big Ten university interviewing students about their experiences with licensure exams. While talking with first- and second-year students, many of them expressed the same struggles and anxieties as students whom I have interviewed at smaller institutions. The large difference is that many tenure-track faculty at large institutions—the people who shape program policy decisions—are unaware of these struggles because they only teach upper division classes and seldom come in contact with students who experience these struggles. More often than not, the students who go through these experiences are taught largely by adjuncts or part-time faculty members in lower-division classes. Stated another way, the majority of students in upper division classes with full-time faculty have already passed certification exams, and this gives the impression that these challenges do not exist at larger institutions. (One important exception to this trend is that of Project TEAM at Indiana University, organized by Christine Bennett.)

What should every institution do to support students in the kind of events that will happen on Saturday? First, institutions must create spaces that will enable them to become aware of the challenges that students face. Not structuring for such spaces and thus assuming knowledge of what students experience is not only institutionally arrogant, it is also bad institutional practice. Programmatic changes (or lack thereof) should be based upon assessments of student needs, as higher education accrediting bodies have outlined. This can occur by conducting brief focus group interviews after students take their exams, disseminating surveys, or through other streamlined means.

In addition, as I have written about before, institutions must give attention to the affective dimensions of testing events. Here, I refer to the aspects of an exam that exist at much deeper and more significant levels than skill and content knowledge. Paying attention to these dimensions has nothing to do with being kind-hearted or sensitive. A wide body of educational research (particularly in the area of social psychology) has demonstrated convincingly that identity threats, anxiety, and other non-skills-related aspects of an experience impede cognitive functioning and skills demonstration. Paying attention in this way means controlling the messages that students receive about the tests, disseminating success stories of other students and making sure that any tutorial programs also address how students process their struggles and successes.

When students enroll at a university, there is a tacit agreement that institutions will give students adequate support for the professional-educational tasks before them. In this agreement, students have the freedom to take advantage of these supports or not. When institutions are not aware of the focused challenges student have and do not provide these kinds of adequate supports, they are not upholding their ends of the agreement. Without attention to these areas, institutions will continue to leave students to fend for themselves in important events like the ones this Saturday.

Relevant reading: Performance and Passing Rate Differences of African American and White Prospective Teachers on Praxis Examinations: A Joint Project of the National Education Association (NEA) and Educational Testing Service (ETS)

Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Hip-Hop Culture in College Students’ Lives: Elements, Embodiment, and Higher Edutainment, published by Routledge.

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