State officials have backed off a proposal to eliminate the basic skills test that applicants must pass to enter a Nebraska college or university’s teacher-prep program.

Supporters had pushed the idea as a way to increase the diversity of teacher candidates and to move away from reliance on a single test to sort would-be teachers.

Had the proposal been adopted, it could have faced a tough go with Gov. Pete Ricketts, who must sign off on such rule changes.

“The Governor’s Office let the Department of Education know about their concerns with the draft rule, which would have lowered standards for our teachers,” said Taylor Gage, spokesman for the governor.

The proposal was pulled off the June agenda of the Nebraska State Board of Education at the request of Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt.

Blomstedt said he would go “back to the drawing board” to explore other approaches.

Advocates had said that eliminating the test would not lower the bar for entry into the teaching profession.

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Under the proposal, would-be Nebraska teachers would still have been required to demonstrate basic skills proficiency. However, they would not have to demonstrate proficiency until after admission, when they applied for initial certification to teach.

At that point, the students could have demonstrated proficiency by submitting basic skills test scores, ACT scores or some combination. The proposal also would have allowed candidates to turn in a lower score in one subject area as long as the total composite score was sufficient and no score fell below a minimum threshold.

Brad Dirksen, administrator in the department’s office of accountability, accreditation and program approval, wrote that eliminating the test would allow students and teacher-education programs extra time to remediate students’ basic skills while still maintaining high standards for certification.

Officials at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln expressed concern about scrapping the test, though an official from the University of Nebraska at Kearney said greater flexibility on testing requirements would benefit the state.

Testifying on the proposal, Sara Skretta, a certification officer in UNL’s College of Education and Human Sciences, said it’s better to test students before they enter a program.

Waiting could do a disservice to students by allowing unprepared ones into the program, where they would spend significant time and money, only to face possible denial of certification later, she said.

Skretta said testing upfront helps identify struggling students early on and would give them time to consider alternate majors. The test is typically taken during a student’s sophomore year in college.

The UNL teacher-preparation program “does not specifically focus on the teaching of basic skills,” she said.

Doing away with the testing admissions requirement could imply that college students don’t need basic skills to pursue training as an educator, she said.

Jenna Jansky, a certification officer for the University of Nebraska at Kearney, testified that the state should give students more flexibility to demonstrate basic-skills competency.

Jansky testified that there is a national teacher shortage and that Nebraska schools are beginning to experience difficulty filling positions. She said UNK officials have seen students succeed in math and language arts courses but struggle to pass the basic-skills test.

Since 2014, Nebraska has used the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators Test published by Educational Testing Service in New Jersey.

Jansky said that since then, Kearney has had more than 250 students not pass all three sections of the test.

In 2017, 26 percent of the UNK students who failed to pass all three sections of the test identified their race as something other than white, she said.

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joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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