'Ms. Art' wants to keep teaching, but one exam stands in her way
As they line up to leave for their next class, students at Howard Hall Elementary in Cumberland County gush about the project they've been working on in art class, an African-style mask.
“It was really fun,” one student tells their principal.
Others excitedly chime in: “We painted a mask!”
Every year, their teacher comes up with a creative project like this for Black history month. Students call their teacher “Ms. Art.”
“It’s my initials,” she explains. “First name Ashley. Middle name Reyna. Last name Thompson, and that's it; Ms. Art.”
On the wall above Ms. Art is a photo of her, back when she was a student at the same school.
“I like to show the kids that I was here,” Thompson says. “It kind of gives them a moment to think like, ‘Okay, well, that could be me later on in life.’”
Ms. Art says she couldn't see herself teaching anywhere but here, but there's something standing in her way. She's been teaching for eight years, but she's struggled to become a fully licensed teacher. She started with a degree in graphic design and went back to school to study education to get her initial teaching license, but she has yet to pass a required licensing exam.
Those licensing exams are designed to ensure that teachers know their subject inside and out, but more than 1,000 teachers like Ms. Art have struggled to pass their exams within the required time frame.
“I've taken it six times and failed it six times, at $160 each time,” Thompson says.
She pays out-of-pocket to take the test, and now it's costing her a lot more — thousands of dollars more — each year.
Ms. Art lost her teaching license because she hasn't passed that exam yet. She's allowed to keep teaching, but only if she's paid the same as an unlicensed substitute teacher. That makes a big difference in her paycheck.
“When you look at it, it's hurtful,” she says. Thompson is earning about $1,400 less per month than last year, Cumberland County Schools confirmed. That amounts to more than a difference of $15,000 annually.
Ms. Art says she feels that pressure every time she sits down to take the exam.
“It's a wave of anxiety,” Thompson says. “That test determines my salary and what I've been doing for the last eight years. This is my career, and that test is going to change it.”
Thompson says she's never been a good test-taker, and now she feels that, because of it, she’s debating whether she can afford to keep teaching. Her boss, Principal Erica Fenner-McAdoo, says she wants to keep her on staff.
“If there was anything in my power at the school level that I could do, I would most definitely do it," McAdoo says. "Because she's such an amazing piece to our culture, to the curriculum. These kids love her."
McAdoo says there are two other teachers in the school in the same boat, and she knows principals at other schools facing the same issue. Plus, her school has other vacancies to fill right now due to the teacher shortage.
“To lose 'Ms. Art' or any other teacher right now in this shortage, my heart breaks for me, but for the children more so,” McAdoo says.
McAdoo says she worries if Ms. Art leaves the school, she’ll have to fill the position with a less qualified substitute teacher.
Is the problem with the licensing exams, or with teacher preparation?
When beginning teachers in North Carolina fail to pass their licensing exams within three years, they’re given another three-year limited license that can't be renewed. It’s like an extension to pass their test, but 15% of teachers on that limited license still don’t pass on time. Then they either take a pay cut or leave the profession.
More than 1,000 teachers in North Carolina currently hold a limited license, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
There are many different licensing exams North Carolina teachers take depending on what subject or grade level they teach. On their first try, about a third of test-takers in North Carolina fail the test that Ms. Art needs to pass, the Praxis 2 content exam for art.
In North Carolina, about 27% of first-time attempts on a teacher licensing exam result in a failure, combining all subjects and types of tests. By comparison, law students are more likely to pass the North Carolina bar exam on the first try.
So, does that mean there's a problem with the tests? Geoff Phelps is a researcher at ETS, the testing company that makes Praxis exams.
“If the pass rate is low, then, I would argue it's not really a problem with the test,” Phelps says. “It's really an issue of making sure that prospective teachers, who we really want to move into the classroom, who are having trouble passing, have opportunities to master the basic content knowledge, they need to be an effective teacher.”
Phelps adds: “Keep in mind that panels of experts have looked at what kinds of knowledge teachers really need in order to provide their students with opportunities to learn. The test is designed to ensure that kids get the teachers they deserve, who are ready to teach a school subject.”
Phelps says he'd like to see more focus on helping prospective teachers be better prepared in their subject area so that they know the content well enough to pass the exam.
“That's not the argument, you're going to hear a lot, right? You're going to hear, ‘Hey, the test is the barrier, let's get rid of it,’” Phelps said.
Education policymakers in North Carolina are concerned about the number of new teachers who are failing licensing exams, and they're looking at alternatives besides throwing out the tests all together.
Policymakers have two potential solutions in the works.
State lawmakers in both the House and Senate recently filed similar bills that would let a teacher like Thompson — Howard Hall Elementary's "Ms. Art" — renew her limited license with approval from her local school board. If the bill becomes law, she would have a pathway to keep teaching with typical pay.
The bill would also require teachers who teach core subjects like math, science and reading that receive EVAAS scores to be rated as “meets or exceeds expectation of growth.” The EVAAS value-added model is a statistical analysis that tries to quantify a teacher’s effect on student growth based on the standardized test scores of students.
State superintendent Catherine Truitt and her administration are also working on an entire restructuring of teacher licensing. The new licensing model is called Pathways to Excellence for Teaching Professionals.
“Pathways would allow for our teachers to demonstrate the multitude of things that they do in a classroom on a daily basis, that does not tie to standardized testing,” says Julie Pittman, a longtime teacher and a special adviser to the state superintendent.
Pittman has been involved in working groups that wrote recommendations for the licensing proposal, which the state board of education approved this month. The working groups want teachers to be able to gain a license using a variety of measures including licensing exams, principal observations, student surveys, student test scores or a portfolio of classwork. Licensing exams would no longer be a barrier for teachers who excel in other ways.
“So that our teachers can actually demonstrate the things they do in the classroom," Pittman said. "And not just demonstrate that they are or are not good test-takers."
The North Carolina Association of Educators has come out against this model, because it also seeks to tie teacher pay to those measures, when their pay is currently based on years of experience.
Right now, that licensing model will require legislation to become a pilot program. Then it would take several years of study to work out the details, and another law to become the standard statewide.
Principal McAdoo says she’d like for the teachers at her school who are in danger of losing their licenses to be judged by her own observations and what they do for students. She points to how Ms. Art has held an art show for her students and used the proceeds from selling the students’ artwork to take the whole school on a field trip.
“I mean, that's amazing. That's not average,” McAdoo says. “For me, that's a top tier teacher, which I feel like, we can't lose that.”
Ms. Art says her own situation is urgent. She's one of potentially thousands of teachers in the state who are in danger of losing their licenses if they don’t pass their own exams in the next few years.
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