State officials want to keep more candidates in Nebraska’s teacher-preparation pipeline by easing testing requirements.
What’s clogging things up, they say, is a test Nebraska adopted three years ago to screen applicants for teacher-education programs.
Good candidates who score a few points low in one academic subject area are getting screened out, they say.
To open up the pipeline, officials are tweaking the scoring so more applicants will pass.
Applicants will no longer have to hit target scores in each of the three tested subjects: reading, writing and math. Instead, applicants will pass if the sum of their scores is high enough.
In other words, an applicant scoring high in reading and writing but lower in math — or vice versa — could potentially be accepted if his or her composite total hits the mark.
The change could benefit applicants whose first language is not English, but who are otherwise strong candidates.
It also could benefit nontraditional applicants — people wanting to change careers and enter teaching, whose math and English skills may have gotten rusty over the years.
Rachel Wise, a member of the Nebraska State Board of Education, said the switch to composite scoring won’t reduce teacher quality.
She said it will provide flexibility. There are still lots of steps before a person accepted into a program becomes a teacher, she said.
She said she doesn’t anticipate that applicants would test very high in one subject and very low in another.
“What’s happening is sometimes people are just a few points off in one area and not another area,” she said. “If someone has a pretty significantly low score (in one subject), they’re typically not going to hit the composite.”
The test is called the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators published by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, New Jersey.
In 2014, state board members adopted it, replacing the Praxis I Pre-Professional Skills Test in use for decades.
The three-part test is typically taken during sophomore year in college. According to ETS, the test is designed to measure the knowledge, skills and ability deemed important in a beginning teacher.
The math portion gauges knowledge of numbers and quantities, algebra and functions, geometry, statistics and probability.
The reading portion measures an applicant’s ability to understand, analyze and evaluate texts. It involves reading and answering questions about passages and statements from media such as newspapers, magazines, novels, nonfiction books and charts.
The writing portion measures the ability to use standard written English correctly and effectively. Applicants answer questions and write two timed essays, one argumentative and the other informative or explanatory.
Currently, applicants must score at least a 156 on the reading portion, 150 in math and 162 in writing.
However, an applicant can pass with a composite score of 468 — the sum of the three subjects — as long as no single subject score is more than one point below the target for that subject.
The scoring change, approved by the board members this month, tweaks this.
It will allow applicants to pass by hitting the targets in each subject or with a composite score of 468 — regardless of their subject scores — and a recommendation from the college or university.
Sheryl Feinstein, dean of the college of education at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, favors the tweak.
If the new composite scoring had been allowed the past three years, UNK would have had an additional 100 qualified applicants, Feinstein said.
“And that’s just here at UNK,” she said. “You take that statewide, and it really impacts the teacher shortage that we are facing.”
Although Nebraska has not experienced the severe shortages reported in other states, certain fields such as math, science and special education are in high demand here.
Feinstein said she hears from rural and urban districts that finding teachers is getting more difficult. Nebraska graduates are being recruited by other states, she said.
When students fail to pass the test, they end up looking for other majors, she said.
“We have a number of students that will take it and take it and retake it,” she said. “They are just missing by small amounts. Lots of kids would really like to become teachers, and this is a barrier.”
Feinstein said other measures ensure that those who pass the test are proficient before they enter the classroom.
Students are required to take and pass English and math classes to get their diploma and become teachers. They student-teach.
The state also requires that new teachers pass a content test in their area of specialization.
“Students have been passing that at very high rates,” she said.
Sharon Katt, a specialist on teacher education programs for the Nebraska Department of Education, said the scoring change is a more reasonable approach that should boost entry into teacher-education programs.
“I think it’s fair to say that this will indeed open options for a fairly large group of individuals,” Katt said.
Katt said the number of students entering teacher-preparation programs has been declining for several years.
“Our numbers are down, pretty consistently,” she said.
Proportionally, more of those people finish, but statistically, the state is producing fewer teachers, she said.