Assessment giant ETS is considering major changes to its widely-used teacher licensing exam, a shift the organization contends could play a part in addressing nationwide teacher shortages.
The Praxis — which has 160 different versions — is the dominant test used in most states for teacher candidates seeking to earn their credentials.
As it stands now, the exams focus primarily on measuring candidates’ understanding of the content and material they want to teach, said Paul Gollash, general manager of K–12 business for ETS. And its primary function is a cut score telling potential teachers if they passed or failed.
But Gollash sees the future of the test as a tool that can provide a wide range of meaningful data on future teachers’ performance across a range of skills.
The nonprofit is in the early stages of researching and setting strategy on testing areas such as teachers’ familiarity with classroom management, social-emotional learning, community engagement, and even their comfort using technology.
“Instead of a high-stakes assessment where people try to take it and we say, ‘Nope, you didn’t pass,’ imagine a world where we say, ‘Oh, you didn’t quite pass, let us help you develop and become the educator that you want to be, because we all know that the system needs you,'” Gollash said in an interview with EdWeek Market Brief during the 2023 ASU+GSV summit, a gathering of education companies with interests in K-12, higher education, the workforce, and other areas.
The assessment and research organization’s review of the Praxis comes as ETS also announced a new partnership with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to create a new suite of competency-based assessments and analytics tools designed to “capture the full range of skills” important to employers and in postsecondary education.
Those tools will focus on both cognitive and behavioral skills, the organization said.
“It is time to fundamentally rethink how learning progressions and mastery are demonstrated, the methods of measurement used, and how attainment of skills is communicated throughout a learner’s journey,” ETS said in its announcement.
Concerns About Bias
Across the education field, there are signs of high-stakes testing falling out of favor, amid rising concerns about their potential for reinforcing bias against underrepresented groups and concerns that they are not equipped to measure learning disparities brought about by the pandemic. Many states, for example, have stopped requiring students to pass an exam to receive a high school diploma.
The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, is among those advocating for changes to the Praxis, as well as other teacher-preparation skills assessments, because of its concerns that the exams create unfair barriers to entering the profession.
The association’s Consortium for Research-Based and Equitable Assessments project has published research that it says shows that the Praxis has a disproportionately negative impact on teacher candidates of color.
Any potential changes to the Praxis need to be closely examined, and there needs to be transparency about the intention and any processes used that could exacerbate biases that affect aspiring teachers, said Leslie Fenwick, dean in residence for AACTE.
“There are some troubling assumptions built into how ETS builds its tests,” Fenwick said. “They need to update their science.”
In response, ETS said in a statement that any product enhancements or new products and services it explores would be designed to “serve all prospective and active teachers from entry into the profession and throughout their careers.”
“ETS is aware that assessments need to change to ensure they are expanding opportunities, not creating barriers,” the organization said in an email. “In addition, this is a time to carefully consider if tests are the solution or different forms of assessment are better suited to meet today’s needs.”
The organization would work with panels of educators, school leaders, and state officials while developing any changes to the Praxis test, Gollash said.
Help for Staffing Shortages?
Reducing the barriers to entering the teaching profession has been a major conversation among states in recent months as staffing shortages affect districts nationwide.
Some states are already allowing teaching candidates to temporarily skirt licensing tests as a part of efforts to address staffing woes. Many states have loosened the requirements to make it easier to get people into the classroom, steps that include issuing emergency licenses and opening the door to candidates who don’t yet have a bachelor’s degree (policies adopted in Arizona and Florida).
The potential change to the Praxis exam is a response, Gollash said, to what he considers “very dangerous decisions to just lower the bar for quality.”
His hypothesis is that providing more insights about teachers’ skills, and making the exam a starting point in an educational journey rather than a roadblock, would be a step toward making it easier for a larger and more diverse group of people to enter the profession.
And the additional data could be useful for a district employer looking to target or personalize professional development for a new teacher, Gollash said.
“Anything that makes it a more holistic assessment is a good thing,” said Carole Basile, dean of Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.
The current entry exams have in some ways “been a barrier to teacher candidates, because they don’t get a lot of feedback from it,” she said.
Gollash stepped into his role overseeing K-12 business at ETS earlier this month. Previously, he was the founder and CEO of the online language-training product Voxy.
ETS also appointed a new CEO and president, Amit Sevak, a little less than a year ago. He started the role in June.
ETS hopes to roll out initial pilots of any changes to the Praxis later this year, Gollash said.
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