Education

Florida teacher certification exams getting tougher

 

dsmiley@MiamiHerald.com

A push to improve the quality of rookie teachers in Florida’s classrooms may benefit students but leave thousands of prospective educators with a far tougher path into the profession.

In a move years in the making, the State Board of Education voted this week to dramatically hike the passing scores for teacher certification exams in professional education, early childhood education, math and English for Speakers of Other Languages.

The new passing scores kick in this March as students continue a transition to new education standards that emphasize critical thinking.

“By maintaining high standards for educators, students and schools alike, Florida will continue improving academic performance so students are prepared for college, a career and life,” Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said in a statement to the Miami Herald.

Teachers in Florida have been required since 1980 to pass certification exams in order to secure a career as an educator. Currently, the state counts 275,000 holding professional certifications.

Etters said the strength of the exams has to be reviewed every five years under state law. Passing scores on science exams were hiked in 2012, for instance. And in 2010, the state agreed to increase the difficulty of its certification tests while applying for $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds.

That led to Tuesday’s “shift away from a minimum competency exam to a threshold for a beginning effective teacher, one who would have a high likelihood of improving the outcome of their students,” said Juan Copa, Florida’s deputy commissioner of accountability.

The new requirements also come as the superintendents of Pinellas and Hillsborough schools talked about the need for better-qualified teachers. State Board of Education member and former teacher Rebecca Fishman Lipsey said educators’ “stock just went up because their club just got more exclusive.”

The Florida Education Association, however, is somewhat dubious that the state is guaranteeing better classroom instruction.

“I’m not sure that increasing the test level necessarily makes for a better teacher,” said spokesman Mark Pudlow. “But it’s an additional challenge, and Florida teachers are going to meet the challenge.”

Indeed, thousands seeking a career in teaching will likely need to take at least a second crack at the $200 certification exams in order to pass, based on Department of Education expectations. According to Copa, an additional 2,000 out of the 10,000 who take the Professional Education exam for the first time will fail. In terms of percentages, only 39 percent of those who take a new, four-pronged test for pre-K-through-third-grade will pass, and only half of the 1,000 who take the ESOL exam each year.

That doesn’t mean they can’t enter the classroom, as Florida law allows districts to hire “temporary” teachers who lack professional certifications. But in Miami-Dade, at least, few such teachers are hired — there are only about 200 temporary certificate holders out of 21,000 teachers. And those who do get a job on a temporary certificate will have a harder time earning their credentials before a three-year deadline hits.

When the state increased scores for science certification exams two years ago, some worried that might exacerbate a shortage of such teachers. ESOL educators also are on Florida’s list for critical shortage areas. But in Miami-Dade, where there are close to 70,000 students classified as “English Language Learners,” the district’s head of human resources said they’re not concerned about facing a staffing crunch.

Similarly, the University of Central Florida, which graduates more students with education degrees than any other university in the state, isn’t sweating. Bryan Zugelder, executive director of undergraduate affairs and partnerships, said the university remains involved in the content on certification exams, and its students already have to earn a professional certification to graduate.

He said classes are designed to prepare UCF grads for the Florida Teacher Certification Exam.

“But I am concerned about what it might do for people who just think because they have a bachelors degree in anything they can just walk off the street and want to teach,’’ he said. “That’s where districts might find there won’t be as many people qualified.”

Even if that is the case, all schools should want tougher standards for teachers entering the profession, said Sandi Jacobs, vice president for the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit watchdog group that evaluates teacher preparation.

“It’s really hard to teach what you don’t know,” she said. “You don’t want to exacerbate [teacher] shortages, but student interests aren’t served if you make the bar too low and give students teachers who aren’t ready. So it’s hard to make an argument for lowering the bar.”

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