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The numbers are troubling and on the edge of embarrassing — 2,386 North Carolina elementary school teachers have failed the math portion of their licensing exam since 2013. So says a report presented to the state Board of Education last week, The Charlotte Observer’s Ann Doss Helms reported.
The failure rate on those math tests is getting worse as N.C. schools struggle to find teachers to fill classrooms, Helms reports. Only 54.5 percent of teachers passed the exam in 2016-17, down from 65 percent three years earlier. Equally as concerning is the anecdotal report that at least some teachers are taking the test three to four times before passing — meaning they had ample time to reacquaint themselves with the math they’d been taught in high school or college, yet still failed.
The results have apparently alarmed state officials, who’ve named a committee of experts to review the test, which is administered by British-owned company Pearson. We hope and expect that examination will answer and raise some critical questions about the tests and the teachers who take them.
How did N.C. teachers do on the Pearson test relative to other states? In a statement to the Observer, Pearson said that North Carolina officials determine the grade teachers need to pass the licensing exam, which suggests that the bar might be higher or lower than other states. At least two other states — Florida and Indiana — also have seen mass failures when their states adopted the Pearson tests, Helms reports.
If North Carolina’s standard is higher than other states, then officials should examine why that is and if there is a sweet spot that lowers the standard without sacrificing quality instruction in N.C. classrooms. If, on the other hand, our teachers are simply performing worse than teachers elsewhere, the state has some larger questions to ask, including:
How much math does an elementary school teacher need to know? This is a trickier one. It may be fair to argue, as some North Carolina teachers have, that a kindergarten math teacher shouldn’t be tested on higher-level math knowledge. But studies, including one from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, show that elementary math teachers who have a deeper understanding of math concepts provide richer learning opportunities for students, including better mathematical explanations and models of mathematical processes.
Simply put, the more math you know, the better you can translate that knowledge to your elementary school students. Which leads to perhaps the most important question that N.C. education officials — and N.C. legislators — should ask:
Is North Carolina doing enough to get the best quality teachers for our children? The states we know of that also have struggled with Pearson failures (Florida and Indiana) share something with North Carolina: All three are in the bottom half of the United States in median salary for school teachers. North Carolina was the worst of the three at 46th.
That pay is improving, but not quickly enough. Are elementary teachers’ math failures a reflection of that? It’s a question that N.C. officials at least should ask.