Remember those teachers failing math exams? NC has discovered a miscalculation twist.

For more than five months, North Carolina’s education leaders have been agonizing over a math test that has posed a barrier for hundreds of elementary school teachers trying to get their license and keep their jobs.

This week state officials announced that, well ... their own calculations may have been flawed.

But they said Wednesday the hullabaloo over high failure rates on the Pearson exams has led them to new insights and better questions about how to keep incompetent teachers out of classrooms without deterring good ones.

“It’s done a lot to move the needle on how we think about teacher preparation,” said Tom Tomberlin, director of educator recruitment and support for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

To be clear: There really are teachers who are highly effective in their classrooms who are at risk of losing their jobs if they can’t pass the licensing exam.

State Board of Education member Wayne McDevitt said Wednesday that he keeps hearing from superintendents and principals that “I’m going to lose one of my really, really good teachers because she or he has not, is not going to pass that test.”

Some relief for those teachers could come as early as March. Education officials say they’ve identified a new exam they believe will be more effective at identifying skills in teaching math to young children, as opposed to just the ability to solve middle and high school math problems.

But they also acknowledged that the problem may not lie with the specific exam, but with the very premise that giving teachers math and reading tests identifies the ones who have the skills to succeed.

“What the (school districts) are learning in a very real way is that the licensure exam does not predict who’s going to be a good teacher and who’s not,” Tomberlin told the board. “We are going to have to grapple with that question sooner rather than later.”

How this started

The wonky topic of teacher licensure burst into public view in August, when Tomberlin presented a report citing high failure rates on the math exams.

But the challenge took root in 2014, when the state revised the process for granting new teachers a license.

Before that, prospective teachers had to pass their licensing exams before they could start work. That meant the scramble to pass came at the end of college.

The new system gave recent graduates two years to pass, which meant those who failed while still in college could get a job, establish a reputation and keep trying.

At the same time, North Carolina switched from the Praxis exam, given by the nonprofit ETS, to math, reading and multi-subject tests published by the for-profit Pearson. State officials have said they adopted those tests because Massachusetts, a state with strong student performance, was using them.

The blowback came when elementary school and special education teachers who were getting great job reviews started reaching their two-year deadline and still hadn’t passed. The state gave the first group an extra year, but some continued to struggle — and grew frustrated at having to pay $94 each time they retook the math exam, no small chunk out of a starting teacher’s paycheck.

In August Department of Public Instruction staff told the state board that “pass rates on the new exam fell dramatically” after the Pearson exam was adopted, from about 85 percent in 2013-14 to 65 percent in 2014-15. Over the first three years using the Pearson math test, almost 2,400 teachers or prospective teachers failed, according to a report at the August meeting.

Oops ...

On Wednesday, Tomberlin told the state board that wasn’t a valid comparison.

Under the old system, he noted, everyone had to pass the licensing exams before starting work as a teacher, so the pass rate for any given year included people who tried more than once. Under the new system, people who failed the first time could wait a year or two — or three, for the first group that got extra time — so people who ultimately pass and become teachers may register as failures at first. If you tally all the teachers who started taking the math test in 2014-15 and passed within the three-year window, he said, the 65 percent Pearson pass rate rises to 85 percent, identical to the Praxis.

Still, the state is poised to offer teachers the option of taking a new version of the Praxis to meet their math requirements, pending another round of review and a March vote. Those who prefer to stick with Pearson can do that, too. The Praxis brings another plus for teachers: The fee is $74, or $20 less than the Pearson math exam.

The state polled officials at 47 North Carolina educator preparation programs and found overwhelming support for adding the Praxis option, Tomberlin reported Wednesday.

Jennifer Russell, chair of the education department at William Peace University in Raleigh, said about 80 percent of the Praxis exam tests the skills required to teach math to young children, while the Pearson option is mostly a test of math taught in middle and high school.

“What we’re wanting to know from them when they graduate is if they know how to teach the math,” Russell said. “... The content (of the Praxis exam) is much more appropriate for what elementary teachers will be experiencing in an elementary classroom.”

Tomberlin said after the meeting that the current plan wouldn’t eliminate the Pearson exam, but he expects it to fade from use.

Scott Overland, Pearson’s media relations director, said that “Pearson has proudly worked with North Carolina to implement educator licensure examinations for a number of years. We continue to stand ready to provide high-quality examinations, and support North Carolinians through all phases of their education.”

The root of the problem?

But it was another question in the Department of Public Instruction’s survey of education schools that produced the most jarring results: How many hours of math instruction must their teaching students take to earn a degree?

The results ranged from zero at one school to 15 at two schools. Sixteen of the programs required fewer than five hours of math, while nine programs required 10 hours or more, according to a chart presented to the board.

“This is some very important information from the field,” Tomberlin said.

Tomberlin told the board he knew what their next question would be: Does the time spent in math-education classes correlate with effectiveness in teaching math? “The answer is I don’t know.”

Tomberlin, his staff and North Carolina’s schools of education will need some time to answer the big questions. But for teachers, the pressing question is what their options are for passing the exams, earning a license and staying employed.

Katie Steele, a special education teacher in Alexander County, was one of the early voices questioning the Pearson exam. In August the Observer reported that Steele had repeatedly failed the math test, despite having graduated from Appalachian State with honors in 2015 and being named her county’s first-year teacher of the year.

About the time that article ran, Steele got back her scores from another retake. She had failed, she said, by one point.

On Wednesday Steele told the Observer in an email that she had “FINALLY just passed the math exam.”

“However, I am still stuck on the multi-subject exam,” she added. “It is my hope that they will remove this exam from licensure.”

That’s part of the plan. The General Assembly required only the reading and math exams for licensure, but the Board of Education added the multi-subject test. Tomberlin said many of the teachers who stumble on math also fail the multi-subject one.

The latest plan calls for ending that requirement immediately — as soon as the Board of Education makes a decision.


A previous version of this story gave an outdated job title for Tom Tomberlin, director of educator recruitment and support for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.