To Predict Teacher Effectiveness, We Cannot Rely on Licensure Exams Alone

July 23, 2021
Strategic Planning

The National Council on Teacher Quality’s new report on teacher licensure exam pass rates is an illuminating collection of data, aggregating exam results across thousands of test attempts between 2015 and 2018. Relay commends NCTQ for producing a robust initial certification exam data set that provides valuable opportunities for comparison and analysis.

The report paints a grim portrait -- more than half of elementary teacher candidates fail their first attempts at certification exams. Teacher candidates of color fail these exams at significantly higher rates than their white peers, and candidates of color who fail their first attempt also fail to retake the exam at higher rates than white candidates.

Ongoing reporting and research highlight the obstacles that teacher certification exams present to candidates of color. The results of that work, alongside NCTQ’s report, beg the question: are teacher licensure exams predictive of teacher effectiveness?

While some conclude that research has largely found that teachers’ test performance predicts their classroom performance, other researchers have arrived at different conclusions. A REL Northwest report found that “teaching exams are not strong predictors of teaching effectiveness, and there is little evidence that testing translates to better teachers overall.” On the whole, the evidence for the predictive value of teacher certification exams is mixed at best.

Given that evidence, and these exams’ disproportionately negative impact on prospective teachers of color, we believe it’s worth exploring other assessment options for aspiring teachers. Teacher residencies, a training approach that we’ve wholeheartedly embraced at Relay, offer one such alternative.

Our residency program provides a gradual on-ramp into teaching. Residents work alongside a mentor teacher in a classroom for a year before leading a classroom of their own. Through this model, principals and teacher preparation programs work together to evaluate candidates through evidence gathered throughout the course of the apprenticeship year. At Relay, that evidence includes: coursework performance, observations, student surveys, and student achievement data.

Research has shown that teacher residencies improve teacher retention, standardized test scores, and the demographic diversity of our teacher workforce -- over 60% of teacher residents identify as people of color, compared with 22% of teachers nationally. Students of teacher residency graduates have high confidence in their teaching ability and classroom culture, and residency alumni reported that they were well-prepared for the realities of classroom teaching.

Teacher licensure exams have the potential to be very useful -- ideally, the exams would consistently and accurately assess how effective a given teacher candidate is likely to be once they’re leading their own classroom. But they’re not the entire story, and have the potential to produce negative outcomes -- research has shown higher cut scores on licensure exams have the potential to screen out effective teachers, and worsen outcomes for students.

Licensure exams aren’t the full measure of teachers-to-be. Through high-quality residencies, we can combine ongoing evaluation with support and practice, providing our future teachers with the tools they need to be successful in the classroom across a wide range of measures.