Crisis in the classroom: still no solution to Indiana teaching exam failures

Published: .
Updated: .

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Six months after state officials pledged to investigate and fix problems involving state-mandated competency exams for new teachers, 13 Investigates has discovered a fix is nowhere in sight. The Indiana State Board of Education learned this week the investigation has been delayed due to miscommunication and lack of information, resulting in continued heartache for teachers and school districts across the state.

“It's a difficult situation, so I'm not going to sugar-coat it or try to pretend it's something it's not,” Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick told WTHR. “This continues to a problem.”

The problem involves the states CORE assessment exams for teachers. Many of the exams, which are intended to test a prospective teacher’s mastery in specific subjects and teaching methodology, have miserable pass rates. Middle school math and English teachers have failed the state’s CORE English and math tests about two-thirds of their attempts, and other CORE assessment exams have pass rates as low as 18%.

The Indiana Board of Education at a meeting earlier this week.
The Indiana Board of Education at a meeting earlier this week.

New Indiana teachers must pass the exams in the subject areas they wish to teach in order to get a state teaching license.

Earlier this year, WTHR showed young teachers across Indiana had repeatedly failed the tests – in some cases, six times or more – prompting the state school board to order an investigation.

“We need to understand what’s going on because schools need teachers, and we’re hearing schools say they’re having trouble getting those teachers in some areas,” state school board member Cari Whicker told WTHR in January.

There is still little understanding of the problem – let alone any solutions – causing promising young teachers to lose their jobs or move out of state.

Formal notice of termination

As students and teachers headed back to school this week at Greenwood Middle School, someone was missing.

Jessica Roberts, who was just hired to teach 6th and 7th grade gym at the middle school, was not at school on the first day of class, despite having a brand new employee badge from the Greenwood Community School Corporation following a successful job interview.

Jessica Roberts after her graduation from Ball State University. (Submitted photo)
Jessica Roberts after her graduation from Ball State University. (Submitted photo)

“They offered me the spot, and I accepted it right there on that same phone call, and I was excited, jumping around. I couldn't wait,” Roberts told WTHR.

The recent graduate from Ball State University had already passed the state's CORE physical education exam, but she hadn't yet taken a general pedagogy exam required of all teachers.

Roberts took the test last week - just a few days before school started - and she did not pass, prompting a call from the middle school principal.

“I got an immediate phone call from the school, and he was like, ‘I'm really sorry but you're going to have to resign,’ and I was just heartbroken,” Roberts said. “I was devastated. I had moved my entire life down to Greenwood, and now I don't have a job because of the test.”

A few days later, she received a letter from Greenwood Superintendent Kent DeKoninck, informing Roberts “this letter serves as formal notice of the termination of the previous employment offer to you.”

Greenwood Schools declined to discuss the firing, citing its policy to not comment on personnel matters.

As Roberts now scrambles to find employment elsewhere, Megan Poage, understands exactly what she is going through.

Poage was forced to leave a teaching job after she failed to pass the state’s CORE historical perspectives exam five times. She recently tried to take the test a sixth time, and did not pass that either. She moved back to her home state of Kentucky and is now looking for a job there after receiving an emergency teaching waiver from the Kentucky Board of Education.

“It’s definitely frustrating. I’d thought with such a teacher shortage, they would want people to stay in Indiana and teach. I think it will deter people from being teachers, especially in Indiana,” she said.

“We are well aware of it”

That is a concern shared by state education officials. The state superintendent told 13 Investigates she’s hearing frustration from more than just teachers.

“It is frustrating for those who are trying to pass the darn test and can't get it passed. It’s frustrating for administrators who are needing to hire teachers. It's frustrating for parents and for students who are waiting in the classroom for a licensed teacher,” McCormick said. “There's a lot of frustration. We are well aware of it, and I'm sure we'll continue to hear that frustration until we have some answers.”

The answers were supposed to come earlier this summer. The State Board of Education asked its Technical Advisory Committee to review the CORE assessment exams to better understand the problems.

“TAC reviewed the validity claims around all of the evidence that hey received. At this point in time they had no significant concerns with how those tests were formalized, developed. They were deemed to be valid based on the evidence that was presented to them,” Charity Flores, IDOE’s director of assessment, said at a June board meeting.

But the committee wanted more evidence. It asked for additional information from Pearson to conduct a more detailed review of the exams, as well as their reliability and validity, according to McCormick. That review has not yet happened, because the information requested has not yet been provided. IDOE staff said there had been a miscommunication about the types of information the committee needs to conduct its investigation, and it could be several more weeks – or even months before than information can be obtained and studied by the committee.

“That was a real surprise and a disappointment,” Whicker told WTHR this week, after she learned of the delay. “I was not expecting that. I thought we’d be getting some results.”

McCormick also expressed disappointment about the pace of the investigation.

“It’s never fast enough because you have classrooms that need teachers. You have teachers whose careers are on the line,” she said. “If the TAC comes back and says [the exams] are valid and reliable, we still are going to be in somewhat the same position, so what do we do with that? So we’re looking at all options. We’re going to continue to work on it but’s it’s just taking time. It’s a heavy lift, so we’re asking teachers and schools to be patient.”

Devastating failures

Teachers like Kahla Long say their patience is running out as they make a final push to get teaching licenses. Long is almost done with her teaching program at Ivy Tech and has four CORE exams she needs to pass to get her state teaching license. The early education major says she has studied hard but, so far, has only passed one of the tests.

Kahla Long
Kahla Long

“It was kind of devastating just because you go into the test thinking you're going to pass it, and at the end you find out you didn't and it's overwhelming,” she said. “I think good quality teachers are being stopped from their profession because of the test.”

Another recent graduate, who asked not to be identified, failed the state’s CORE historical perspectives exam eight times. He recently passed on his ninth attempt, allowing him to obtain an Indiana license and to get his first job in an Indiana classroom.

“This fantastic experience could have been ripped away from me simply because I could not pass a ridiculously hard test that shows nothing except a for a pass/fail score… It has been an extremely long and grueling fight” he told WTHR, adding that he paid nearly $1100 in testing fees throughout the ordeal. “Teaching isn’t about who is the best test taker or who can pass the teaching exam. Teaching is about inspiring kids and motivating kids to want to learn.”

So far, the Indiana Department of Education has issued hundreds of temporary emergency teaching licenses – 369 last month alone – that allow teachers who have not passed their CORE exams to teach while continuing their attempts to pass the tests. It has helped school districts across the state fill vacant positions that cannot be filled by a licensed educator.

“We’ve got to have teachers, right?” said McCormick. “So if we have barriers to get people in the classroom in the field, that’s a problem. That’s why we’re still working on this.”