Crisis in the classroom: New Indiana teachers repeatedly failing state exams

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Megan Poage comes from a long line of teachers. Her grandmother was a social studies teacher. Megan's father spent years teaching at an elementary school and at a community college. And now, after Megan graduated from the University of Southern Indiana with a 3.8 grade point average in history, it's her turn in the classroom.

"I think I've always wanted to be a teacher," she told WTHR. "I want to be that person who changes someone's life. I want to be a role model for someone who doesn't have a role model at home."

Megan Poage (Photo courtesy: Haley Rheinlander)

Young, energetic and ambitious, Poage earned a soccer scholarship to attend USI. Because she graduated near the top of her class and was a standout in the classroom during her student teaching assignment, the aspiring teacher quickly got job offers from several school districts in Indiana and in her home state of Kentucky.

At the start of this school year, she accepted a full time job teaching history at Tates Creek Middle School in Lexington.

But her dream of being a teacher is now in serious jeopardy.

"I no longer have a job anymore. I feel heartbroken," she said, shaking her head.

Fayette County Public Schools recently terminated Poage's contract because, months after her graduation, she still doesn't have her teaching license from the state where she graduated.

Megan tried to get it – repeatedly – but she can't, because she hasn't been able to pass an exam that is now required of all new Indiana teachers.

And she is not alone.

Failing again and again

In the past three years, thousands of new, would-be Indiana teachers have failed the state's CORE content area assessment exams. The tests, which are each designed to evaluate teacher knowledge in a very specific subject area, are a prerequisite for new teachers to obtain their Indiana state teaching license.

The CORE teacher assessment tests are administered by Pearson Education, one of the nation's largest standardized testing companies. In 2014, the Pearson tests replaced what was referred to as the Praxis II teacher exams, which had long been used to assess teachers' content mastery. The Praxis II tests have a high passage rate for Indiana teachers. That is not the case for many of the Pearson exams, which have pass rates that are horrible.

During the 2015-2016 academic year, only 36% of prospective English teachers passed the CORE middle school English language arts exam.

A dismal 32% of would-be Indiana math teachers passed the CORE middle school math test.

And only 18% of aspiring science teachers passed the CORE middle school science exam.

Other CORE exams – including history, social studies, reading, economics and geography – all show first-time pass rates of less than 50%, according to state testing data obtained by WTHR.

Many teaching candidates are failing the test over and over and over again.

"I've taken it five times … and I have not passed it yet," said Poage, who is still trying to pass the CORE social studies historical perspectives exam. "I do not think [the test] is fair whatsoever."

Dr. James Beeby

She has an ally in James Beeby, dean of the University of Southern Indiana's College of Liberal Arts.

"We have people who want to teach, who love teaching, and the one thing that is stopping them is this test," he said.

Beeby told WTHR he has spoken with deans at Indiana University, Indiana State, Ball State and other colleges around the state – and all have big concerns about the new teaching exams. Beeby believes the tests are having a devastating impact on some of the state's very best teaching candidates.

"I just spoke to a 4.0 [GPA] summa cum laude honor student. She can't pass the exam. She's spent thousands of dollars on the test. She's practiced and she's taken the test four times, and failed four times in a row. And now she can't teach. She's lost a job. It's just really heart wrenching, really," Beeby said.

Maggie Comer

He's referring to Maggie Comer, a summa cum laude honor student who graduated from USI in December.

The history major, who minored in political science and secondary education, is baffled by her inability to pass the Pearson historical perspectives exam.

"I had no reason to think I was not prepared," Comer told WTHR. "It never occurred to me that this [test] would be an issue."

Comer turned down a summer job so she could study 30 hours per week for her assessment exam.

She created stacks of flash cards, re-read her text books, and took several practice tests to prepare.

Over the past six months, Comer has passed all five sections of the history test – just not at once. That means, for now, she still cannot get her teaching license from the state of Indiana. She recently worked as a substitute teacher at Bosse High School in Evansville, but that job ended last week. Without her state license, a full-time teaching position will be hard to find.

"It all comes back to ‘you don't have a license,'" Comer said. "It is extremely disappointing and discouraging. I want to be a teacher."

"If this issue is not addressed, in the long-term you're going to see highly-motivated, passionate individuals that want to go into the classroom -- when there's a shortage of teachers in the state -- not being able to do that," said Beeby. "I think that's sad for the state of Indiana. That's a problem."

Circle of problems

“I have lots of schools in my area who still have trouble filling positions because we can't pass certain areas”

It's a problem state leaders have known about for years.

Soon after teachers began taking the new Pearson teacher assessment exams in 2014, Indiana's State Board of Education started receiving complaints about low pass rates.

Data presented to state education leaders clearly showed shockingly-low test scores, prompting the state to take action.

The Indiana Department of Education and Pearson Education assembled panels of Indiana teachers to review the assessment exams. That triggered changes for many of the tests – either adding more time for questions to be completed or changing the number of correct answers required for a passing grade.

Following the changes, scores improved in some of the content areas. But in other areas, scores remained woefully low and, in some cases, they dropped even further. Nearly three years after IDOE started fielding complaints, members of the Indiana State Board of Education are still trying to address the lingering issue. Their frustrations were evident at a recent board meeting, where they questioned a Pearson spokesman.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick and ISBE board member Cari Whicker

"I still hear a lot of concerns. I have lots of schools in my area who still have trouble filling positions because we can't pass certain areas," said ISBE board member Cari Whicker, who also teaches language arts and social studies at Riverview Middle School in Huntington. "Our pipeline of new teachers is very slow right now. It's a trickle, and we have to do something to keep that pipeline of new teachers open."

"We've got a circle of problems here!" exclaimed board member Byron Ernest. "We've got a low pass rate … you're talking about an area of 18% passage [for the middle school science exam], right? That's a problem!"

During the meeting, Whicker and other board members pressed Pearson Education to explain where the state's ideal pass rate should be.

"What do you consider an acceptable pass rate? Is 18% an acceptable pass rate?" Whicker asked.

Nathan Estel, Pearson Evaluations Systems Group

"80% is an acceptable pass rate," replied Nathan Estel, who attended the state board meeting on behalf of Pearson Education's Evaluation Systems Group.

But more than half of all content areas for Pearson's teacher assessment exams have a pass rate below 80%.

"When I ask what is an acceptable pass rate and the Pearson rep says 80%, and yet we have rates in the teens, we have to do something," Whicker told WTHR.

Emergency action

Jordan Eichoff, teacher at Washington Middle School

The state has offered a temporary solution by granting thousands of emergency teaching permits. The permits allow new Indiana teachers who have failed a CORE content exam the opportunity to teach full-time in an Indiana classroom while they re-take the exam in an effort to obtain their regular teaching license.

13 Investigates has learned the number of those emergency permits has skyrocketed. IDOE granted more than 2,100 emergency waivers last year – up from 966 emergency permits issued during the 2012-2013 school year.

Jordan Eichoff is now teaching at Washington Middle School in Evansville thanks to one of those emergency waivers.

Like Poage and Comer, Eichoff has taken the social studies historical perspectives teaching exam multiple times without success.

"Not passing that test is basically telling me I can't be a teacher and I'm not good enough or smart enough to be a teacher, and I know that's not true, said Eichoff, who has failed the test three times. "My principal has observed me in the classroom and said I'm doing as well as a third-year teacher. But the test is everything. If you don't pass it, you're not going to be employed."

Eichoff's emergency teaching permit will expire in June. If he cannot pass the Pearson teaching assessment before then, he will have to give up his full-time teaching job – just like Poage and Comer.

The aspiring teachers say the test has taken an emotional toll.

"It makes you feel like the test has failed you as a person," Poage explained to WTHR. "Each time I saw the ‘not pass,' I was heartbroken."

"My family keeps asking me ‘Why can't you pass the test?'" said Eichoff. "I really felt like I was prepared. I studied hard, so I really don't know what to tell them. I feel like I've failed myself."

"Who do you want teaching your kids?"

The roadblock for thousands of new teaching candidates comes a particularly bad time for Indiana school districts.

Dr. Terry McDaniel, associate professor at ISU

"We have a serious shortage in a lot of different areas," said Dr. Terry McDaniel, an associate professor at Indiana State University's Bayh College of Education, who has been tracking the state's ongoing teacher shortage.

His annual statewide survey of Indiana school superintendents shows 84% of Indiana school districts now report a teacher shortage in two or more subject areas. Four out of every five school districts surveyed said they now use emergency permits to fill teaching positions, and half of the school districts said they had teachers teaching outside of their licensed areas due to the shortage.

"If schools can't find a good, qualified teacher, they have to go out and find someone else who's not as qualified," McDaniel explained. "Who do you want teaching your kids? Do you want someone who's been through a college program and is trained to teach, or do you want to pull someone off the street who maybe doesn't know anything about the subject matter? The number of newly-licensed teachers is way down."

The state is licensing far fewer teachers than it used to.

During the 2012-2013 school year, before Indiana switched its teacher assessment exams to Pearson Education, IDOE issued licenses to 5,890 first-time teachers. Since then, the number of licenses granted to new teachers had dropped significantly – by as much as 35%. IDOE data shows the state issued 4,814 new teaching licenses in 2013-2014, 3,843 new licenses in 2014-2015, and 4,552 new licenses during the 2015-2016 school year.

"There are many factors at play, and it's time our legislators wake up and understand that there's a lot of elements involved with this," McDaniel said. "Certainly, the test is one of the factors."

Pointing fingers

“It's a problem with the test itself”

Determining the cause of the problem has proven elusive. All of the major players – IDOE, Pearson Education, teaching candidates and state universities – are careful not to place direct blame elsewhere.

"The test itself might not be the problem. The students might not be the problem. The colleges may not be the problem. It may be a culmination of several things all coming together," Whicker told WTHR.

But recurring comments made at a recent IDOE board meeting do suggest subtle finger pointing.

When asked what he'd say to aspiring Indiana teachers who've repeatedly failed their assessment exams, Pearson spokesman Nathan Estel replied, "I'd encourage them to prepare for the test."

"What more can I do to prepare?" asked Eichoff.

Both Jordan and Megan say they spent weeks studying for tests. They also bought practice tests and review materials at an additional cost.

So far, Poage has spent more than $1,200 to prepare for and take the teacher assessment exams. Pearson sells not only the mandatory testing service to teaching candidates who want an Indiana teaching license, but also an optional practice test -- which Megan, Maggie and Jordan each took several times. Poage also signed up (and paid) for a test preparation course where she scored a 99% on the final exam – only to fail the Pearson test a few days later.

Poage says the biggest cost is her lost income. Since she forfeited her $42,7000 per year full-time teaching job in Lexington, Poage now works as a substitute teacher for the same school district at a rate of $84 per day – a small fraction of her former salary.

Despite her new diploma, Comer is also earning a substitute teacher's salary -- $70 per day in Evansville – because she has not been able to secure her Indiana teaching license. That leaves little extra to pay the $80 cost for each Pearson test re-take and $30 for each new Pearson practice exam.

"I have to work two days to pay for one test," she said.

The recent college graduates say an overall lack of support materials, relevant study guides and pertinent practice tests from Pearson has contributed to their lack of success on their assessment exams.

A sample of the Indiana Core Assessments study guide

Several remarks at January's state board meeting seemed to suggest Indiana colleges and universities might bore responsibility for the poor teacher pass rates because they could be failing to properly prepare their students and could be failing to align their instruction with state standards.

"That's not the case. Students are graduating and coming out well prepared," said Liz Brown, chair of the math and computer science department at Indiana State University. She says state colleges and universities are teaching to the required standards, and students are learning what they need to know to be good teachers.

"I agree with that. I don't think it's a problem with the curriculum at the universities," said Beeby, defending SIU and other state universities. "It's a problem with the test itself."

Pearson deflects responsibility

“It was Indiana teachers who helped us develop the specifications”

Any suggestion that Pearson Education might be to blame for the state's recurring teacher assessment problems is met with the same company response: Don't blame us; we're only following the input of Indiana teachers.

That is the explanation we heard repeatedly from Pearson spokesman Nathan Estel when WTHR met with him at the Indiana Statehouse and asked him to explain the low pass rates for Indiana teachers.

"It was Indiana teachers who helped us develop the specifications for the assessment, so I would say it's important to go back and look at the standards on which the assessments were built. Those were developed here in Indiana – again, by Indiana educators – and approved by this board."

And it's the same response Pearson Education sent to WTHR in a written statement from media director Scott Overland:

"The Indiana CORE Assessments Program for Educators is designed based on the recommendations and input of educators from across Indiana. These subject-matter experts understand the knowledge and skills necessary for entry into Indiana's public school classrooms. As with all new exams, there will be a period of transition as preparation programs adjust to the state's new standards and assessments. Pearson welcomes feedback on the assessment program and continues to work with the Board of Education and Department of Education to ensure it aligns with Indiana's goals and requirements."

But several Indiana teachers who provided "recommendations and input" for the Pearson teacher assessment tests take issue with that position.

“I was not able to finish, and people around me were not either - it wasn't just me”

"I think that's ridiculous," said Brown, the longtime math instructor at Indiana State.

She's one of the Indiana teachers that Pearson asked to review its math assessment exam which, at the time, had a dismal pass rate of below 10%. So Dr. Brown took the exam herself, along with other high school and college math instructors. The ISU math teacher with a PhD and more than 30 years of teaching experience told WTHR she and other experienced math professors in the room all struggled with the test.

"I didn't finish all the questions in the time allowed – even though the time had already been extended. And keep in mind, I'm fast and know lots of short cuts that a new teacher probably doesn't know," Brown said. "I was not able to finish, and people around me were not either. It wasn't just me."

Brown said questions asked on the exam were "perfectly appropriate" and that she did not find any problems with the questions' level of difficulty. The environment, however, was "very problematic," according to Brown. Among her concerns:

  • Far too little time to complete complex multiple choice questions which require a great deal of calculating and problem solving
  • An on-screen calculator (teaching candidates are not allowed to use their own calculator) that is not intuitive and has no accompanying instructions, and
  • Dry erase whiteboards that test takers must use for calculating their answers (scratch paper is not permitted) which are not large enough for more complex calculations and must be replaced by a test monitor each time the whiteboard is filled, wasting valuable time during the exam

According to Brown, several professors told Pearson about their concerns during the review session.

"We argued with them. Several of us complained loudly … [but] we were just basically brushed off. Our concerns were dismissed," she said.

Pearson's ability to hear feedback from Indiana teachers was also called into question during the state board meeting in January. That's when Estel and an IDOE representative told board members about a series of four "listening sessions" that they held last year at universities around the state to hear educator complaints, concerns and feedback about the teacher assessment exams. They said about 75 faculty members attended the sessions.

"The discussions were pretty engaging. They pushed back a little bit. They asked a lot of questions," said Risa Regnier, IDOE's director of educational licensing.

But when a board member asked "What was the pushback?" both Regnier and Estel stood wide-eyed, looking at each other in silence. Neither could recall any of the comments or concerns discussed by Indiana teachers.

"They're really not interested in our concerns and really don't listen," said Dr. Dan Clark, coordinator of Indiana State University's Social Studies Education program.

“I think they need to go back to square one on these tests”

Like Brown, Clark was also asked to participate in a Pearson teacher assessment exam review session to offer input and feedback. He reviewed the social studies historical perspectives test – the same test failed repeatedly by Megan, Maggie and Jordan – to help recalibrate the score required for a passing grade. He left the review feeling discouraged.

"I was one of 30 or so teachers and professors who took the exam," said Clark. "I'm a PhD published historian, and I was simply guessing on many of the questions. If I can't answer these questions, what are my students supposed to do? I don't think the test represents the academic standards, and I think we should have a real conversation about what Indiana teachers really need to know. In a perfect world, I think they need to go back to square one on these tests."

He also said the Pearson review session was not about providing feedback.

"The conversations I was in on weren't at all a conversation or a discussion or collaboration. It sounds good to say Indiana teachers are the ones who come up with the tests, but I don't think that's the case. They say they want input, but that's really a way to guard their flank," Clark added.

How long? How many more?

Despite the criticism, Pearson insists its Indiana teacher assessment tests are both reliable and fair. A company spokesman would not, however, say whether Pearson is satisfied with its Indiana pass rates.

"I'm not going to answer whether we're satisfied with that," Estel said. "We're concerned, and we continue to work with the Department of Education to monitor the performance of Indiana's candidates on these assessments."

Indiana's new Superintendent of Public Instruction says she is concerned, too.

"Throwing stones right now probably isn't the best idea, but obviously there's an issue," Dr. Jennifer McCormick said at her first board meeting. "Clearly we have to take a look at this."

The superintendent's office tells 13 Investigates the state board's Technical Advisory Committee is once again reviewing the Pearson CORE assessments, and will hopefully provide recommendations to the full board in March.

In the meantime, time is ticking.

Jordan's emergency teaching permit expires in just a few months. If he can't pass the Pearson historical perspectives exam, he'll lose his full-time job -- just like Megan and Maggie.

"How many smart, enthusiastic and knowledgeable graduates to you have to lose before something is done to ensure we have a fair and relevant chance at securing a teaching job?" Poage asked state board members last month. "We just want to teach."