Should teachers stay in the classroom if they can’t pass the state’s General Knowledge Test?

By: - March 15, 2019 7:00 am
Elementary school class

A new CDC report shows that in 43 states, access to full-time, in-person learning in schools was higher for non-Hispanic white students compared to those of color. , Credit: Getty Images

Hundreds of would-be and new teachers have been failing state exams in fundamental subjects and skills, raising concerns about how to maintain a quality teaching force in Florida and fill positions in areas short of teachers.

The required General Knowledge Test covers math, writing, reading, vocabulary, grammar and spelling – essentials needed to lead a classroom – but test takers across the state have had trouble passing some or all sections, state data show.

The failure rates are significant because applicants for teacher licensing typically can’t get fully certified if they don’t pass the exam. They can teach temporarily, but must pass the exam within a year.

After some publicity about teachers who have had to leave their schools because they couldn’t pass, Florida lawmakers have tried to remedy the situation: They’ve filed legislation that would extend the time teachers have to pass the exam to three years instead of one, or even waive the test entirely in certain circumstances.

Is that a good thing or bad thing? Should a teacher be in the classroom for three years or more but never pass a fundamental exam?

The legislation has prompted a range of opinions and even a quandary for educators, teacher preparation officials, administrators, advocacy groups and teacher’s unions.

Fund Education Now, an advocacy group for public education, opposes the change that would allow teachers to stay in the classroom without passing the general knowledge exam.

The proposal “opens the doors to allowing a wide range of possibly unqualified people to teach,” the group said.

Andrea Messina is executive director of the Florida School Boards Association and she knows of well-meaning and devoted test takers who haven’t been able to pass the exam.

She recalls a friend who pursued a second career, went back to school and got a second undergraduate degree in education. But despite several attempts, she hasn’t been able to pass the math section of the general knowledge test, Messina said.

It doesn’t seem fair: “The question really is, should one test be the determination?” Messina asked.

At the same time, she said the Florida School Boards Association hasn’t “necessarily taken a position” on expanding the time period for passing the exam to three years. The group didn’t ask for the change, but it also won’t oppose it.

“We’re not going to oppose it because we want good people in the classroom that make a difference in children’s lives,” Messina said.

The statewide teacher’s union – the Florida Education Association — has been focusing mostly on getting more funds to traditional public schools, higher pay for teachers and battling against voucher programs that allow students to go to private schools with public dollars. So the general knowledge test requirements don’t appear to be on the top of the priority list.

But like the School Boards Association, the state teacher’s union isn’t opposing the legislation.

“We appreciate the flexibility the three-year proposal would allow,” said Cathy Boehme, a public policy advocate at the FEA. “Many of the teachers who struggle with the test are second-career teachers and have been out of formal school for many years, which can make it tough to take a college-level exam.”

The math test is a particular hurdle, with Algebra, geometry and other math subjects harkening back to high school days.

The Department of Education provided data to the Florida Phoenix on first-time passing rates for the General Knowledge Test given to test takers in a range of preparation programs, from traditional universities that have Colleges of Education to state colleges, private colleges school districts and other alternative programs.

The three-year analysis across all groups, from January 2015 to December 2017, showed that only 57.1 percent of test takers passed the math section when they sat for the exam for the first time.

The passing rate for the reading section was 59 percent; 65.4 percent for English Language skills such as grammar and vocabulary, and 67.5 percent for the essay portion of the exam.

Those overall percentages are considered “abysmal but not reflective of a teacher in preparation,” said Tom Dana, an associate dean and professor at University of Florida’s College of Education.

That’s because “anyone can sit for the exam, skewing overall pass-rate data since the test takers are not all aspiring teachers,” Dana said. And there are different types of preparation programs the lead to different results.

Across all programs, some of the schools had low passing rates in the 20, 30 and 40 percent range.

In contrast, some state universities that have a traditional approach to teacher preparation have some of the highest passing rates.

“Teacher candidates in approved teacher education programs must pass the General Knowledge Exam for entry into the program. That requirement is in state rule. So, 100% of aspiring teachers in teacher education programs passed the General Knowledge Exam,” Dana said.

However, first-time passing rates can be more revealing, with UF having some of the highest passing rates on the exams, in the 90 percent range, according to the data.

Florida A & M University had the lowest first-time passing rates of the state universities in three of the four sections – in the 60 and low 70 percent range. FAMU had a much higher passing rate in reading, 80.5 percent. University officials could not be reached for comment.

The lowest passing rate for state universities in reading was at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, which had a first-time passing rate of 59.1 percent. Several other universities had passing rates in the 60 percent range in the reading section.

At USF St. Petersburg, Allyson Watson is Dean of the College of Education and she says the passing rates in reading have been increasing at the campus, and students in the state-approved education program can’t graduate without passing the exam.

As for teachers who are already in a classroom but can’t pass the exam, Watson said, the proposed legislation on extending time for test takers to pass “would benefit the entire state.”

Elizabeth Molina, a dean who heads education programs at Broward College, says students have struggled to pass the general knowledge exam.

“Students are not obviously prepared. The weakest area is math,” she said.

In that vein, Molina has instituted numerous programs to get students  ready for the exam, including tutoring, videos and practice exams.

Would she want teachers to be in the classroom without having passed the exam?

“It is a double-edge sword,” Molina said.

“It does get teachers in the pipeline, but in the long run, they have to worry about lessons, planning, instruction and classroom strategies and they have that worry of, ‘Oh my God, I have to make the transition from a temporary to professional,’” Molina said.

That means getting a five-year professional certificate rather than a temporary certificate, which requires passing the general knowledge exam.


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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.